An idiom that often appears on college entrance examinations is "different from." Do not use the incorrect "different than."

This idiom can be remembered by changing the syntax of the sentence: in place of a linking verb and the adjective "different," use a form of "to differ."

  1. Bob is different from Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.
  2. Bob differs from Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.
  3. Bob is different than Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.
  4. Bob differs than Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.

While colloquial speech may have made the third sentence sound acceptable, the last sentence simply does not make sense. Just as "differs than" sounds silly, so should "different than."

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Being that the weather was sunny, we went to the beach.

This sentence contains an error in diction. "Being that" is a colloquial phrase that should not be used in formal language or standard written English. Use "because" or "since" instead.

Since the weather was sunny, we went to the beach.

The proper usage of "former" and "latter" depends upon an understanding of the definitions of these words.

former – (adjective) first-mentioned of two

latter – (adjective) last-mentioned of two

Notice that these definitions contain the words "of two." This means that "former" and "latter" can only be used in reference to two people or things. If a comparison contains more than two people or things, use "first" or "last."

first – (adjective) preceding all others in a series

last – (adjective) coming after all others in a series

Look at the proper usage of "former" and "latter" in this sentence:

Jack and Jill went up the hill; the former fell down and broke his crown while the latter came tumbling down after him.

Jack and Jill are two people. In this sentence, Jack is the former and Jill is the latter. This sentence is correct because the comparison is between two people.

Jack and Jill and Bob went up the hill; the latter watched the other two fall down.

This sentence is incorrect. The series contains more than two people, so "latter" should not be used. Bob is the last person in the series. Replace "latter" with "last" to correct the sentence.

Jack and Jill and Bob went up the hill; the last watched the other two fall down.

There is a difference between the proper usage of “number” and “amount.” If something can be counted, use “number” and the related number terms (“few,” “many,” etc.); if something cannot be counted, use “amount” and the related amount terms (“little,” “much,” etc.).

Countable nouns are easy to spot: one cookie, two cookies, three cookies; one class, two classes, three classes; one chair, two chairs, three chairs.

Try counting uncountable nouns: one rice, two rices, three rices? No! One mathematics, two mathematics, three mathematics? No! One furniture, two furnitures, three furnitures? No!

This table lists the terms that are associated with countable nouns (number terms) and uncountable nouns (amount terms), as well as terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns:

number amount both
  • many
  • both
  • several
  • few/fewer/fewest
  • a few
  • one of the
  • a couple of
  • much
  • less
  • little
  • a little
  • very little
  • some
  • any
  • most
  • more
  • all
  • a lot of
  • no
  • none of the

Notice that the terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns include the indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural (mnemonic = SAMAN).

Let’s look at some examples of the usage of these terms.

I have many CDs, but I have less music than my brother has.

CDs are countable (one CD, two CDs, three CDs) but music is uncountable (one music? two musics? three musics? No!). Use “many” with a countable noun and “less” with an uncountable noun.

I had too much ice cream and very little milk. I had several cookies. Now I want some coffee. Hey, someone ate all the hamburgers!

“Ice cream” and “milk” are uncountable (Two ice creams? Three milks? These are colloquial and they sound awkward.) “Much” and “very little” are amount terms to be used with uncountable nouns. “Cookies” are countable, and “several” is a number term to be used with countable nouns. “Some” and “all” are terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns. “Coffee” is uncountable; “hamburgers” are countable.

"To lay" is a transitive verb that means "to place something on a surface, to put" and requires an object. You lay something down.

"To lie" is an intransitive verb that means "to be in or take on a horizontal position, to recline." Since it is intransitive, it never takes a subject. You lie down to sleep.

to lay

  • base form: lay
  • past: laid
  • present participle: (is/are) laying
  • past participle: (has/have/had) laid

to lie

  • base form: lie
  • past: lay
  • present participle: (is/are) lying
  • past participle: (has/have/had) lain

Notice that the past tense of "to lie" is the same as the base form of "to lay."

Review these examples of each tense of both verbs.

Infinitives using the base form:

I am tired, so I am going to lie down. ("to lie" is intransitive; "down" is an adverb modifying "to lie")

I can't wait to lay my head down on my pillow. ("to lay" is transitive; its object is "my head")

Past tense:

Last night, I lay in bed for hours before I finally fell asleep. ("lay" is intransitive; "in bed" is a prepositional phrase modifying "lay")

I laid my keys on the table yesterday, but now I can't find them. ("laid" is transitive; its object is "my keys")

Present participle:

My clothes are lying on the floor. ("are lying" is intransitive; "on the floor" is a prepositional phrase modifying "are lying")

My mother is laying my clothes on the bed. ("is laying" is transitive; its subject is "my clothes")

Past participle:

Before I got up, I had lain in bed for hours. ("had lain" is intransitive; "in bed for hours" is a prepositional phrase modifying "had lain")

Before I put my clothes away, I had laid them on my bed. ("had laid" is transitive; its object is "my clothes")

  • Take this interactive quiz to test your knowledge of these two verbs.
  • If you do not understand a question, post the text in the comments and we will try to explain your mistake.

These pairs of homonyms (words that are pronounced alike) can cause confusion in choosing the proper words to use in standard written English. Review the differences between the words in each pair.

all together/altogether

"all together" means "in a group" when used as an adjective or "at the same time" when used as an adverb.

We were all together in the car. ("all together" is used as an adjective modifying "we")

We went to the concert all together. ("all together" is used as an adverb modifying "went")

"altogether" is an adverb that means "entirely, wholly, completely."

I am altogether fed up with your behavior. ("altogether" is used as an adverb modifying "fed up")

all ready/already

"all ready" is an adjective that means "all prepared."

We were all ready to go to the concert. ("all ready" is an adjective modifying "we")

"already" is an adverb that means "previously."

When we got there, the opening band had already played. ("already" is an adverb modifying "played")

all right/alright

"all right" means "satisfactory" when used as an adjective and "satisfactorily" when used as an adverb.

The opening band was all right, but the headline band was amazing. ("all right" is used as an adjective modifying "band")

The opening band played all right, but the headline band really brought down the house. ("all right" is used as an adverb modifying "played")

"alright" is not a word. Do not use it.

This site features an extensive list of common usage errors in English. The author states in his introduction that "[the] aim of this site is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak." The list can also be helpful in studying for college entrance exams, as it contains several usage errors that are likely to show up on the Writing Skills section of the SAT. Some noteworthy examples:

While the site does not offer a comprehensive review of grammar, it does include several entries concerning types of grammatical errors that consistently show up on the SAT: