Top-notch writing skills are a necessity to make a living as a writer, of course. The English language is tricky business, however, and remembering all the rules can be hard. Never fear! This list of 50+ easy-to-remember tricks will help you improve your spelling and grammar, giving your writing skills the polish they need. Be sure to bookmark this page so you can come back to it!
Passive or Active Voice
Do you have a hard time figuring out the difference between passive and active voice? Try this trick: Add the phrase “by zombies” to the end. If it still makes sense, it’s passive voice. So “She was carried away” is passive, because “She was carried away by zombies” would make sense.
What’s a Preposition?
Not sure what a preposition is? It’s anything a squirrel can do to a tree: it can go up a tree, it can go down a tree, it can go in a tree or out a tree or around a tree… All those words—up, down, in, out, around—are prepositions.
Desert or Dessert?
A desert is a dry, arid plot of land, while dessert is a delicious morsel of food often enjoyed after dinner. If you struggle to keep the two separated in your head, just remember this: Dessert has 2 S’s because you want more and more of it.
Principle or Principal?
A principle is a basis for a belief in something, while a principal is the head of a school. The old rule is just to remember your principal is your pal.
How Do You Spell Cemetery?
Struggling to remember how to spell cemetery? Remember that it has 3 Es—like in the word Eeek!
My Brother and I or My Brother and Me
My brother and I went to the store together—or was it my brother and me? If you’re pairing yourself with another person and aren’t sure which to say, take the other person out first. You would never say “Me went to the store”—you’d say “I went to the store”—so in that case, it would be “My brother and I.” On the other hand, you would say “She let me borrow her car,” so for that one, it would be “She let my brother and me borrow her car.”
Coordinating conjunctions are words that can be used after commas to link two independent clauses together. To remember your coordinating conjunctions, just remember the acronym FANBOYS: For And Nor But Or Yet So.
Most people think the word “decimate” means to completely destroy something. The key to the actual definition lies in the root word—“deci”—like “decimal” or “decibel.” Decimate, by definition, actually means to reduce something by one tenth.
Less or Fewer
Not sure when to use less or fewer? Less is when you’re talking about something not quantifiable by a number, while fewer is used when you’re talking about something you could count. So, for example, grocery store signs should say “14 items or fewer,” not “14 items or less,” because you can count how many items in your cart.
Note that the distinction between less and fewer is if you can count something, not if you would want to count something. So you would say, “I would like the beach to have less sand,” or you could say “I would like the beach to have fewer grains of sand”—because while you wouldn’t count all the grains of sand at the beach, grains of sand are something that can be counted, while sand, on its own, is not.
Do or Make
Do you do housework or make housework? Of the two, “do” is an active verb, so here’s the test you use: Does it feel like work? If the answer is yes, you use the word “do.” Otherwise, you use the word “make.” So you would do housework, but you would make friends. Another test is creation. If you’re creating something, use make. If you’re doing something, use do.
Adjectives vs. Adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are both description words. The difference between the two? Adjectives describe nouns while adverbs describe verbs. One easy trick to remember is that adverbs often end in “ly”—like quickly or stealthily—while most of your other description words, like purple or sly, are adjectives.
Good vs. Well
When someone asks how you are, do you say “I’m doing good” or do you say “I’m doing well”? Believe it or not, there’s a difference. The word “good” has a moral basis to it, whereas the word “well” has to do with how you’re feeling. So if you say “I’m doing good,” what you’re actually saying is that you’re doing something morally good—charity work, for example—whereas if you say you’re doing well, you mean you’re not ailing in any way.
Cut Out the Word “Very”
The word “very” is almost always unnecessary in your writing. Mark Twain once said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should.”
Modifiers should always go next to the subject they’re modifying, but we misplace them in language all the time. When you’re trying to check your writing for this, just remember that mechanics don’t leak oil.
What does that mean? Consider the following sentence: “Leaking oil, the mechanic fixed the car.” What that sentence is saying is that the mechanic is leaking oil, though clearly it should be the car that is leaking oil. So it should read: “Leaking oil, the car was fixed by the mechanic.”
Always Compare Apples to Apples
Have you heard the phrase “comparing apples to oranges?” What this means is that you need to make sure that when you are comparing two items, they’re actually equivalent. Consider this sentence: The novels of Ernest Hemingway are shorter than William Faulkner. This is comparing Ernest Hemingway’s novels to William Faulkner, not to William Faulkner’s novels. When comparing items in a sentence, you may need to make the sentence longer to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. The sentence above, for example, should read “The novels of Ernest Hemingway are shorter than the novels of William Faulkner” to avoid confusion.
Affect vs. Effect
Struggling to remember the difference between affect and effect? Just remember that A is for action. Affect is a verb form of influence and means “to have an impact on.” For example, you would say “Do you think the weather will affect the turn-out at tomorrow’s cook out?” Effect, on the other hand, is the result of an action. For example, you would say “His new airbrushing technique gave his work a cool effect.”
What Are Transitions?
Transitions are words that lead you from one idea to the next. They literally make a transition. You need these words to guide your reader from one word to the next.
Its vs. It’s
Can’t keep its and it’s straight? Just remember that it’s is longer because it’s really two words: It is. So if you can replace the word with “it is”, then you need the version with the apostrophe. If not, its is the word to us.
Then vs. Than
Then versus than is easy to remember when you keep in mind that then has an E because it describes eons of time. For example, “I liked being a kid; things were easier back then.” Than, on the other hand, is a comparison word. For example, “This tree is smaller than your tree.”
I.e. vs. E.g.
I.E. and E.G. are both abbreviations of Latin words, and once you know what they’re abbreviations of, it’s much easier to use them correctly. I.e. stands for “Id Est” which means “In other words.” It’s used when restating an idea, usually as a way to simplify it. e.g. stands for “Exempli Gratia” and means “For example.”
There vs. Their
I Before E
We’ve all heard the phrase “I before E except after C,” but sometimes we forget that there’s a second part to this rhyme. The full rhyme is “I before E except after C, or in sounding as ‘A’ as in Neighbor or Weigh.” And don’t forget, the word “weird” is weird.
Stationery vs. Stationary
If you mix these two words up, just remember that “E” is for “Envelopes” while “A” is for “Automobiles”. So, if you’re talking about the paper you’d stick in an envelope, it’s stationery. If you’re talking about being stuck in your car and not moving, you’re stationary.
How to Spell Because
Struggling to spell because? Remember this mnemonic device: “Big Elephants Always Upset Small Elephants.”
How to Spell Necessary
Sometimes it’s hard to remember if necessary has one C and 2 Ss or 2 Cs and one S. A helpful way to remember is you can have one collar and two socks.
Practice vs. Practise
Mixing up these two words? Remember that practise is a verb with an “S” for “sport,” while practice with a “C” is the noun.
How to Spell Rhythm
Trying to remember how to spell rhythm? Remember this mnemonic device: “Rhythm helps your two hips move.”
How to Spell Island
When you’re remembering how to spell island, remember than an island is land with water all around.
Piece vs. Peace
Mixing up piece and peace? Just remember that you want a piece of pie.
Lose vs. Loose
Lose is to misplace, so it misplaced an O. Loose, on the other hand, is not too tight, so it has room for an extra O.
What’s a Semicolon?
Despite its name, a semicolon shouldn’t be used to replace a colon. In fact, it’s used to replace a period, separating two closely related sentences.
Here’s a quick and easy rule about quotations: Punctuation always stays inside. So even if you’re ending a sentence with a quote, the period would go on the inside of the quotation marks, not the outside.
The only exception is when you have a quote inside of a sentence that ends with and question mark and the quote doesn’t. For example: When someone asks how you are, do you say “I’m doing good” or do you say “I’m doing well”?
Who vs. Whom
Not sure if you should use who or whom? Rephrase the statement as a question, and then answer it with either “he” or “him.” If your answer is “he,” then you want the word “who.” If your answer is “him,” then you want the word “whom.” E.g.: Matt is the one ____ we saw. Who did we see? We saw him. So it would be “Matt is the one whom we saw.” Matt is the one ____ went first. Who went first? He did. So it would be “Matt is the one who went first.”
That vs. Who/Whose/Whom
Not sure if you should use “that” or some form of “who?” That is an object word, while who is for people. If you remember that who is for who-mans (humans), you’ll be using the words correctly.
How to Spell Tomorrow
If you struggle to remember how to spell tomorrow, remember that it actually used to be two words: To and Morrow, as in, “Let’s keep going to the morrow.” Over time, it was hyphenated into to-morrow, and finally combined to the form we know today — tomorrow.
How to Spell Separate
The middle part of the word “separate” can be hard to keep track of. To remember it, remind yourself that an R separates two As.
How to Spell Embarrass
It can be hard to keep track of how many Rs and Ss are in the word embarrass. The mnemonic device can help: “I get [R]eally [R]ed when my [S]ister [S]ings”.
How to Spell Horror
Think of the word “horror” as having two Os because you have to keep your eyes open in fear.
How to Spell Special
Special is spelled with a CIA, because the CIA has Special Agents.
Here’s a fun mnemonic to remember how to use commas: “A cat has claws at the end of its paws. A comma’s a pause at the end of a clause.”
Double negatives are not grammatically correct, and when you do use them, the two negatives end up countering each other, often saying the opposite of what you intended. Here’s an easy saying to help you remember: “I don’t know nothing about double negatives.”
What’s an Interjection?
Here’s a cute little poem to help you remember what an interjection is: “An interjection cries out, “Hark!” I need an exclamation mark!”
An infinitive is the basic “to” form of a verb, like “to dance” or “to write.” It’s incorrect to split infinites. Splitting infinitives is when you put a word between the “to” and the verb. Keep in mind the opening line of Star Trek—“To boldly go where no man has gone before”—to remember. The line was mocked by Douglas Adams, who quipped, “To boldly split infinitives that no man had split before.”
How to Spell Exaggerate
To remember that exaggerate has two Gs, remember that “Goofy Greg loves to exaggerate.”
How to Spell Difficulty
Struggling to remember how to spell difficulty? Wrestle up some memories of the old Matilda movie and say to yourself what the kids said in that movie: Mrs. D, Mrs. I, Mrs. F. F. I., Mrs. C, Mrs. U, Mrs. L.T.Y.
How to Spell Environment
Remember that a new environment will Iron Me out to get the middle letters in that word in the right order.
How to Spell Truly
Because “truly” is spelled differently than its root word, true, it can be hard to remember how to spell it. Here’s a little phrase that will remind you: “It is truly hot in July.” Though they’re pronounced differently, this can help you remember that truly and July are spelled similarly.
Quite vs. Quiet
Can’t remember which word you’re trying to use? Remember this little phrase: “It is [Q]uite [U]nbelievably [I]mpossible [T]o [E]njoy Spelling Difficult Words.”
How to Spell Vacuum
When you’re trying to remember how to spell “vacuum,” remember the phrase “I See Two Ewes in the Field.” That will help you remember that there is 1 C and 2 Us.
Compliment vs. Complement
Trying to remember the difference between compliment and complement? Remember that the opposite of a compliment is an insult, while when something complements something else, it enhances it in some way.
Capital vs. Capitol
A capital, with an A, is a city where main government offices are. A capitol, with an O, is the building where laws are made. To remember the difference, remember that many capitols have domes, both of which have Os.
Weather vs. Whether
Trying to remember whether to use the word weather or whether? Just remember: “In cold weather, you wear a sweater.”