The English language can be pretty challenging. You need to know your independent clauses from your dependent. Then there are subjects, prepositions, clauses, conjunctions, and ... the list goes on. Understanding how English fits together is the key to good grammar and great readability.

Thankfully, we can learn in more engaging and entertaining ways, like Weird Al Yankovic's parody Word Crimes, that we may have been taught in the classroom.

We’re also here to help. To kick things off, check out these common word crimes and how to avoid them.

1 | They're vs their vs there

They sound identical and are often used out of place. We’ve written a full blog on this to guide you through: They’re, their, there. What’s the problem?.

2 | Less vs fewer

We see it at every grocery store - 10 items or less. But, every grocery store has it wrong. Less is used when talking about items that cannot be counted, while fewer refers to items that can be.

You can have less money, less time, and less energy, but you have fewer dollars, fewer hours, and fewer socks.

3 | Who vs whom

Whom is used when referring to the object of a verb or preposition, while who is used when referring to the subject.

The most helpful way to remember is if you can accurately replace the word with "he" or "she", use who. If you can accurately replace it with "him" or "her", use whom.

4 | Affect vs effect

These words are commonly misused because they both refer to a degree of influence. Affect is doing the influencing; effect is being influenced.

So Word Crimes affects its listeners, and the effect of the song is listeners will use proper grammar.

Still not sure which one is correct? Consider using the synonym impact.

5 | Lie vs lay

This rule has proven confusing for hundreds of years.

Lie refers to something or someone that can move on its own; there's no object in the sentence. Lay refers to the object of a verb.

You can lie down after a long day, but you lay the new flooring in your kitchen.

Unfortunately, this rule gets even trickier. The past tense of lie is lay, so while you got to lay down yesterday, you might not get the chance to lie down today.

Last week you laid the new flooring, so today you won't need to lay anymore.

Confused yet?

Double check the rules and cut yourself some slack; even the most experienced grammar gurus don't use these words properly every time.

6 | Your vs You're

The difference here is owning or being. Your is passive, while you’re is a contraction of you are.

  • You’re having a great day. It’s your birthday and everyone’s bought you lovely presents.

7 | To vs too

If you’re like me, you’ll see to and too being used incorrectly all through your social feeds. It could be fat thumbs, not looking over your post, or something else that’s the reason. But, this is how to avoid it.

To is used before an action, description or destination. Such as:

  • I’m going on holiday to Ibiza.
  • I’ve sent my work to my boss to proofread.
  • I’m taking my son to nursery.

Too is quite different as is used to say you are doing something also.

  • You’re going to Ibiza? Fabulous, I’m going too!
  • My deadlines are coming up, can you send this in for me too?
  • I’m going to nursery too.

10 | Beach vs beech

Talking of social media crimes, this is one I used to do all the time when I first moved to the coast. It drove my wife potty, rightfully so, and it’s an easy one to avoid.

  • A beach is full of sand, or pebbles if you live in Brighton.
  • A beech is a tree that lives nowhere near the beach.

Hopefully, these examples will help you avoid committing "word crimes". As Weird Al said, "literacy's your mission".

Steve Linney

Steve Linney was part of the Readable team until July 2019.