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Fiction Workshop
#8 Grammar Cheats, or, How to Squash Bugaboos and Nits

by Nan Jacobs
copyright 01-14-2003

Age Rating: 10 +

GRAMMAR CHEATS or: How to Squash Bugaboos and Nits

Do you have Swiss cheese for brains? Does Spell Check have trouble reading your mind? If not, then move along; you don't need this list.

The rest of us, however, are plagued too often by our favorite (uh huh) grammar Nits/Bugaboos. Mine are lay/lie and recalling the actual names of parts of speech. Since I don't need to worry about the latter in the actual process of writing, I trust in the grammar book (my favorite is WOE IS I, by Patricia T. O'Connor) when it's necessary to discuss such things as dangling this-n-thats, past participles, and other grammatical whatnots. Understanding the difference between lay and lie is important to the process of writing, but I'll be darned if I can remember without looking it up each time—and I'll be darned if I'm going to hunt down and search through WOE IS I or Strunk and White every time the Lay/Lie Bugaboo stares me in the face.

That's where Cheats and bulletin boards (or monitors and post-it notes) come in. By default, all listed items may be hung on the BB or monitor; Cheats (lest we overcrowd the BB or monitor) are the "mental methods" of recall.



EFFECT is a noun (99.9% of the time). The effect of the drought on the crops was devastating.
AFFECT is a verb (99.9% of the time). The cold weather dramatically affected the crops' well being.

The Cheat: remind yourself that there is only one E in AFFECT and in vErb. Therefore, AFFECT is the verb. EFFECT has two E's and doesn't match, therefore it is the noun. We won't even go there regarding the .1% of the time that these two words switch places.


PASSED is always a verb, the past tense of "pass". The biker passed the bad-dog house in a hurry. Use the "-ed" ending as your Cheat. The past tense of verbs is often created by adding "-ed".

PAST is a noun referring to time as history or it's a grammar thingie--adjective or adverb--that modifies a noun (as in "past tense" . . .), or a verb, but I'm not so sure it's called an adjective/adverb in this case (now I need the grammar book). The snow drifted past the biker. (Note that "drifted" is the verb, not "past".)

The Cheat: if you can replace your passed/past word with "by", then you definitely need to use "past".


IT'S stands only for "It is" or, less common, "It has". It's (it is) white. It's (it has) been raining.

ITS is possessive. It is a pronoun. Its color is white.

The Cheat: remember that all possessive forms of pronouns DO NOT take the usual possession-indicator apostrophe. Relate "its vs. it's" to the he/she possessive forms: His or her coat/Harry's or Sally's coat. Its pages/the book's pages. It's/it is quite simple, really.


YOU'RE stands for "you are". You're going to regret reading this.

YOUR is like "ITS". It's a pronoun and, like "ITS" does NOT take the possessive apostrophe. You're going to regret spending your time reading this.

The Cheat: same as for ITS/IT'S


TAUNT means to mock or ridicule. They taunted him on the playground.

TAUT means tight, rigid, stressed. They pulled the rope taut.

The Cheats: TAUNT= Nyah-nyah-neeners! TAUNT and Nyah-nyah-neeners have N's. Many N's. . .
TAUT is "tighter" in length than TAUNT. (Although one could make the argument that neeners=stressed=taut… Oh, never mind.)

Have trouble spelling this one? Just think, "There is no DANCE in CORRESPONDENCE". Of course, you can always defer to Spellcheck on this one.

Developments LOP off the land. (No E on the end). Ditto the Spellcheck cop-out above.


COMPLEMENT means to make COMPLETE. The flowers nicely complemented the table setting.

COMPLIMENT means to express praise. He complimented Karen on her lovely singing.

The Cheats:
ComplEment = complEte. Note the E's.
ComplIment = Icky mushy stuff. Also, backhanded complIments can lead to Interesting reactions. Note the I's.


I never have any trouble with these, myself, but maybe I'd loose some wait (oh, there are two more to add to the list!) if I had to tangle with them more often.

DESERT with the accent on the first syllable: the sandy place. It's also what you do when you run away from responsibility.

DESERTS with accent on second syllable: when you get what's comin' to ya. Often referred to as "just deserts".

DESSERT: the yummy stuff.

The Cheats:
DESERT: Sandy place. Run away a.k.a. "SPLIT". One S in each word.
DESERTS: Two S's in DESERTS, but separated from each other as in ServeS (two S's) you right. I know, I know, it's a stretch.
DESSERT(S): Dinner has two N's in the middle; dessert comes after dinner, and if you're a piggy (see, two letters in the middle again) you might have two desserts. But I would never, ever, not ever call French Silk Pie and Coconut Cream Cake "just desserts". And furthermore, as we all know, desserts is "Stressed" spelled backward. Which brings us to . . .


FARTHER refers to physical distance.

FURTHER refers to abstract ideas, degrees of things.

The Cheats:
FARTHER: Well duh. Hellooooo? Think of FAR away.
FURTHER: "And FURTHERMORE . . ." "To carry this idea a step FURTHER . . . " Of course, English being English, that is to say, weird (so much for the universal cheat of "i before e except after c") we don't say, "Do you think you're carrying things a bit too FUR?"


INTO: entering, changing, contact

IN TO: all other instances

The Cheat: (from WOE IS I): If you can drop the "in" without losing the meaning of the sentence, use IN TO.


WAIT: to stand around feeling impatient (for 99.9% of the populace) while someone else takes too long.

WEIGHT: that for which one might wait a long time to lose. I.e., tonnage.

The Cheats:
Weight is a bigger word than wait. It's heavier. It carries more wordy weight than wait. Now, wait a minute . . . .


LOSE: the present tense of "lost". Don't lose any more weight, unless you're planning on changing into a stick person. (Notice how I cleverly insinuated several Nits into this one.)

LOOSE: the opposite of tight. After losing all that weight, she is waiting to see how loose her old slacks will be, and if she has attained size negative 3.

The Cheat:
You’d prefer a LOOSE NOOSE, wouldn't you?

This darling duo is a Nitpick above all the others and probably deserves the title "Mother-of-All-Bugaboos".

"LAY" is a transitive verb (requires an object) meaning to place or put down. Tenses: Lay; laid; laid; laying. (If it helps, think of it as movement of something by something else from one place to another). Example: Lay the book on the table. He laid the book on the table. They have laid their books on the table. They are laying their books on the table right now.

"LIE" is an intransitive verb (does not take an object) meaning to recline. Tenses: Lie; lay; lain; lying. Example: Lie on the bed. He lay on the bed yesterday. He has lain on this bed. He is lying on this bed.

Note: Lay (present tense of LAY; transitive verb) and lay (past tense of LIE; intransitive verb) are to be blamed for most of this aggravation.

I have yet to find a reliable Cheat for the lay/lie Bugaboo, since there are so #$% many forms of lay/lie in all their past, present, future and participial glory; I've been forced to grudgingly capitulate and have resorted to a large hanging chad on the bulletin board for "lay/lie". I study this scrap of paper every time the words lay/lie--or any one of their derivatives--rear their taunting little typefaces. You must realize, I've sacrificed space that would be fur better spent on an inspirational photo of, say, Bob Church (assuming I could discover the real one in his gallery)? Therefore, as my parting shot, I'm laying the Lay/Lie Bugaboo to rest. (And yes, I had to look!)


I invite you to send me your own favorite Bugaboos and Nits (with their respective Cheats) if you don't see them maligned above. I will gladly add them to the Swiss Cheese Head Master Nit-List and credit your genius accordingly. Don't be shy, because I'm sure someone is out there right now whimpering, "But how about 'imminent and eminent'? What happened to 'tortuous and torturous'?"

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        03-14-2013     betterthingstocome        

Hello Jacobs
I enjoyed reading this column very much. I have never been good with my grammar and the right terms in the right tenses. I chuckled a bit as I read through the list of “Nits and Bugaboos” and your example cheats that you compiled. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

        04-15-2005     Brian Dickenson        

A very lighthearted treatment of what for the beginer is a minefield.
A must have for us all.
Thank you, Brian

        04-11-2005     Tori Lang        

Thankyou for your entertaining yet educational and easy to get info. As a beginner i will take it with me.

        03-16-2005     Sarah Mahler        

How I loved this. It helped ever so much, since I get caught up in tons of problems whenever I use a spellcheck or write anything..


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