Throwback Thursday: A Grammar Cheat Sheet

This post first appeared on Thesislink in March 2015.

Whether you’re an anthropologist, a biologist, a criminologist, a toxicologist, or an otorhinolaryngologist, you need to know the principles of good grammar.

Otorhinolaryngology: either a) the study of interrelations between otters and rhinos, or b) the study of ear, nose and throat disorders. I know which option I want to be true.

Here’s a quick round-up of some grammatical principles we can all hold in our minds as we write.

If it’s him, use whom

The who/whom distinction is one of those things that just doesn’t stick in my brain, so I need a clever trick to remember it. Here’s the deal: imagine you’re writing about a man, then flip your sentence around into a question. “For whom the bell tolls” becomes “For whom does the bell toll?” Answer: him. Because the answer is “him,” “whom” is correct. If the answer is “he,” use “who.”

To boldly split

An infinitive is a verb in two words (to swim, to cook, to write, etc). A split infinitive is an infinitive that has been cleaved apart by an adverb (to quickly swim, to skillfully cook, to knowingly write, etc). You may have been taught not to split infinitives, but these days they are not considered wrong; just a little clumsy. This must please the writers of Star Trek, who have long been mocked for their famous phrase “to boldly go.” However, in academic writing, split infinitives are not a great choice.

Can’t subjects and verbs just get along?

A subject can be singular (e.g. pie) or plural (e.g. pies). A verb can be singular (e.g. is) or plural (e.g. are). Subject-verb agreement happens when a singular subject is paired with a singular verb (e.g. the pie is delicious) or a plural subject is paired with a plural verb (e.g. the pies are delicious).

I am in agreement with pie.

This all seems straight forward, but most sentences aren’t so simple. What happens if I need to write “this selection of pies [verb] delicious”? The subject of the sentence is no longer plural (pies) but singular (selection). The correct verb is the singular verb (is) even though there are multiple pies under discussion. So the correct sentence is: “this selection of pies is delicious.” In the complex sentences of academic writing, it can be difficult to figure out whether subjects and verbs are in agreement. This website gives 10 rules to guide subject-verb agreement in almost any sentence.

Werewolves aren’t real

It’s easy to confuse “were” and “was.” The correct use depends on whether you are writing about something real or not real. If you’re writing about something that could be, that is hypothetical, that you wish for, or that isn’t true, you need the subjunctive mood. “Were” is for hypotheticals; “was” is for boring old reality. The easiest way to remember this? “Were”-wolves aren’t real. Thank goodness for that.

Example of correct use of “were”: If all supernatural creatures were as cute as this wolf, then I’d be into Twilight.

Academia is [sic]

You’ve worked so hard on your writing – it would be a shame for a reader to think you’ve made a mistake when you haven’t. So when you have to quote something that contains (or seems to contain) a mistake, use [sic] to show that it’s not your fault. “Sic” is short for the Latin phrase “sic erat scriptum,” meaning “thus it was written.” It’s used to indicate that a mistake is present in your source material – for instance: “Online commenter holden462 wrote ‘it’s better then [sic] it looks.’” [Sic] is a nifty way to say: hey, this mistake isn’t me being careless, it’s in the original. You can also use “sic” to show that something is quoted accurately despite appearing wrong. In my thesis, I quote a lot from novels. I use one book in which characters travel “from the out” (meaning outside their planet’s atmosphere). When I quote funny-looking language like that, I can use [sic] to show that it’s quoted accurately and the use of imperfect English is the author’s choice, not my typo.


If you’ve got some favourite grammar tips, share them in the comments below.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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