Grammar Tips

Question from a reader – “can be had”?


Use of I or me.

A common grammatical error is in the use of I or me, especially in compound constructions. For example:

‘Mary and me are going shopping tomorrow’ is incorrect, but ‘Mary and I are going shopping tomorrow’ is correct. This is because if it was just “I” who was going alone, we would say ‘I am going shopping tomorrow’, not ‘Me is going shopping tomorrow’.

In the same way, ‘The document was signed by John and I’ is incorrect. It should be ‘The document was signed by John and me’, because you wouldn’t say ‘The document was signed by I’ if it was ony “I” signing the document. You would say ‘The document was signed by me’.  

So the rule to remember is: Use I when it is the subject of the verb, and me as the object of preposition.

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The verb tense should indicate the correct meaning in your sentence.

Try and stay with the same tense when writing about a particular thing or idea unless there is a real change in time. For example:

‘Helen went to New York and visits the Statue of Liberty’ is incorrect, because since ‘went’ is in the past tense, ‘visits’ should also be in the past. Hence, it should be ‘Helen went to New York and visited the Statue of Liberty’.

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Subject-Verb agreement in sentences with more than one noun.

Avoid making the verb agree with the noun nearest it, instead to its real subject. For example:

The teacher, with her students, is in the auditorium (not are). This is because ‘the teacher’ is the subject of the sentence, and not the students.

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Correlative expressions and grammatical construction.

Correlative expressions (both, and; either, or; not only, but also; etc) should be followed by the same grammatical construction. For example:

‘Either you must let her go, or let him come’ is incorrect. The correct form is ‘You must either let her go or let him come ‘. Both the words “either” and “or” should come immediately before the “let her….” and “let him…”.

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Use of active voice and passive voice.

Use the active voice when the actor is important, and the passive voice when the person or thing acted upon is more important. For example:

‘The company enforces its rules strictly’. Here the “company” is more important, hence the active voice. ‘Extensive research is being done in the field of cancer’. Here the “research” is more important, so the passive voice has been used.

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Avoid double comparisons.

For example: “more faster” in ‘He runs more faster than I do’. “Faster” is already in the comparative degree, so it doesn’t need the word “more”. Use just “faster” – ‘He runs faster than I do’.

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Use strong adjectives, not weak ones with the word “very”

Use strong adjectives rather than weak ones with the word “very”. For example: Write “tiny” instead of “very small”; or change “very hot” to “scorching”.

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Everyone and everybody

The indefinite pronouns everyone and everybody are always singular, although they seem to be referring to more than one person. So the correct way of saying will be “Everyone is coming” or “Everybody was there” and NOT “Everyone are coming” and “Everybody were there”.

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Use of ‘a’ or ‘an’

In choosing the indefinite articles ‘a’ or ‘an’, consider the sound and not the spelling of the word that follows. For example:

A hat, and an hour. Both hat and hour begin with an H, but the sounds are different. A utility, and an usher. Both utility and usher begin with a U, but the sounds are different.

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Dangling participles

Avoid dangling participles as they tend to be confusing. For example:

Walking down the road, a friend bumped into me. (Confusing: Who bumped? Friend or me?)                                                                                                             Walking down the road, I bumped into a friend. (Correct)

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Avoid comma splices

Do not join two complete sentences with a comma. You will only end up with a comma splice and confuse your readers. For example:

Joan went to the library, she wanted a book to read.

“Joan went to the library” and “she wanted a book to read” are two complete sentences. They cannot be joined by a comma. This grammatical mistake is called a comma splice.

This comma splice can be fixed in one of the following ways:

1. Replace the comma with a period.

Joan went to the library. She wanted a book to read.

2. Replace the comma with a semi-colon.

Joan went to the library; she wanted a book to read.

3. Replace the comma with a conjunction.

Joan went to the library because she wanted a book to read. 

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Placement of subordinate clauses

Avoid placing subordinate clauses in the middle. Place them either at the beginning or at the end of the main clause. Examples:

* Subordinate clause in the middle:  Pollution, because of some man-made causes, has become a major concern today.  (not clear)

* Subordinate clause at the beginning: Because of some man-made causes, pollution has become a major concern today. (clear)

* Subordinate clause at the end: Pollution has become a major concern today because of some man-made causes.   (clear)

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No to adverbs with meanings in verbs

Do not use an adverb where the meaning is already in the verb. For example: “first begin” or “return back” (incorrect); “begin” or “return” (correct).

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Use of were and wishes

If a wish is expressed, or a condition is expressed which does not exist, then were is used regardless of the number of the subject. For example:

If I were seven feet tall, I’d be a basketball player.                                                He acted as though he were rich.

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Use of ‘the’ and ‘a’

“The” is used with specific nouns that refer to something particular. “A” is used with nouns that refer to something general. For example:

The boy in the blue shirt is my brother. (Here, “boy” refers to a particular boy, hence the use of ‘the’.)                                                                                             A boy was standing on the sidewalk. (Here, “boy” refers to a boy in general, hence the use of ‘a’.)

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Starting a sentence with “and” or “but”

A sentence can start with a conjunction such as “and” or “but” in two cases – to make an impact, or to make transition from one idea to another more effective. For example:

And then he left the room, showing his displeasure. (Impact)                              The mother asked her children to study for the test. But the children had other plans. (Transition from one idea to the next)

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‘-able’ or ‘-ible’

If the root is a complete word, add ‘able’. For example: depend + able = dependable.
Other examples – fashionable, acceptable, comfortable.

If the root ends in ‘e’, drop ‘e’ and add ‘able’. For example: value – e + able = valuable.
Other examples – desirable (desireable), advisable (adviseable).

If the root is an incomplete word, add ‘ible’. For example: aud + ible = audible.
Other examples – terrible, possible, incredible

There are some exceptions. For example – digestible, irritable, inevitable

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Double negatives

The general rule is not to use two negatives in a sentence (remember two negatives cancel each other out), unless you want to emphasize a point.
For example:

She realized she did not have no eggs for breakfast. (the two negatives not and no cancel each other out and make a positive statement – i.e. did have eggs)
She realized she did not have any eggs for breakfast. (correct form of statement since there is just one negative)

Double negative may only be used to emphasize a point. For example:

He is not unknown to me.  (here the use of double negative is correct since it has been used to emphasize that the person is known)

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Can I or May I?

There is often confusion in the use of the words can and may when asking questions. You should be careful, because even though the difference is subtle, it often changes the meaning. Here’s the rule:

Use can to indicate ‘ability’ to do something. For example:

Can you go today? (meaning ‘are you able to go today?’)

Use may to denote ‘permission’. For example:

May I come in? (meaning ‘do I have the permission to come in?)

Look how the meaning changes here if you asked “Can I come in?” This will mean “Am I able to come in?” There is a difference between ‘being able to come in’ and ‘having the permission to come in’.

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Split infinitives

Contrary to general belief, split infinitives are grammatically correct. For example, it is perfectly fine to say “to easily write”. According to some people, it is wrong to split infinitives (as in this case the adverb “easily” is splitting the infinitive “to write”), and that the word “to” should remain next to the base verb (like here it should be “to write easily” – “to” being next to the base verb “write”). But this is simply a myth. Though sometimes it may be considered “bad style”, it is grammatically correct to split infinitives.  

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Ending a sentence with a preposition

Avoid ending a sentence with a preposition unless absolutely necessary. 

Example 1:

“This is the house we live in” ends with the preposition “in”. This can also be written as “We live in this house”. Here the first form is incorrect and the second is correct. This is obvious from the fact that the second sentence sounds better.

Example 2:

“Where are you from?” can also be written as “From where are you?” The first form ends with the preposition “from”, yet it sounds better. Here ending with a preposition is correct.

Note: This rule applies only to formal writing. In informal writing, ending with a preposition is acceptable.

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Question from a reader:

Satish Nair writes to ask –

I saw in a brochure of a university … "…the application can be had from the website…". I took the meaning of "can be had" as I can download/copy the application form from the site. I am not sure whether this is correct use of grammar?

Our answer –

Yes, it is grammatically correct to say “it can be had”, and you took it right to mean that “it can be obtained”.

You must have heard or seen terms like “it can be obtained”, “it can be written”, “it can be heard”, “it can be seen”, etc. “It can be had” is also a term of the same form where the past participle of a verb is used with “it can be” to mean “it is possible”. Here, “it can be” is used with the past participle of the verb ‘to have’ (had). Hence, “it can be had” means “it is possible to have”.

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