Share on Facebook

A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

11 Spelling and Grammar Rules No One Can Agree On

Language is constantly changing, but these debates have stayed the same. Which ones do you side with?

1 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

The Oxford comma

People do, in fact, give a hoot about the Oxford comma. Also known as the serial comma, it’s the comma that comes before the final item in a list of three or more. (E.g. We ate eggs, bacon, and pancakes.) Some say it helps clarify which items are separate, but others argue that it’s useless because the “and” takes its place. The “right” answer depends on which style guide you use, so there’s no end to the debate. Do you always, sometimes, or never use it in your own writing? You can see where we lie on the debate. Oxford comma or not, these are 13 comma rules everyone needs to follow.

2 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Doughnut vs. donut

You can blame Dunkin’ Donuts for confusing the public about how to spell their favorite breakfast treat. Merriam-Webster spells the pastry doughnut as the main entry, though it also gives donut the official OK by listing it as an alternate spelling. Use these 14 spelling rules for remembering tricky words.

3 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Ending a sentence with a preposition

What’s this controversy about? Most of us were told in school never to end a sentence with a preposition, but other people argue that the rule just creates stuffy, awkward sentences. Up to you if you’d rather say “About what are you talking?” Don’t miss these other 14 grammar myths your English teacher lied to you about.

4 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Passive voice

No one is arguing that it’s grammatically incorrect, but passive voice still tends to be frowned upon. In sentences like that, the subject of the verb is unclear: Who’s doing the frowning? Professors usually insist on active voice (e.g. writers frown upon passive voice) is stronger and clearer, but some argue that avoiding it entirely gets in the way of creativity. These grammar rules have changed a lot in the last decade, but active voice will always be king.

5 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Adviser vs. advisor

Adviser makes sense if you think of it as “one who advises,” but advisor mirrors the spelling of advisory. Our advice: Stick with the dictionary-preferred adviser.

6 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Starting sentences with conjunctions

When learning how to write, elementary school kids are drilled with a (seemingly) important rule: Don’t start sentences with conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” But grownups don’t always follow that rule. While the guidelines might be an easy rule of thumb for kids who write in fractions, we’ll give adults some creative leeway. This one is almost as hard to wrap our heads around as the 20 most confusing grammar rules in the English Language.

7 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

“I’m good” vs. “I’m well”

How are you: good or well? One certainly sounds more formal than the other, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. The grammatically correct response gets bogged down with questions of whether you should use an adjective (good) or an adverb (well) after the linking verb am, but we’ll throw in one more wrench. Well implies health, while good refers more to a good day or good spirits, so some say it’s actually the more appropriate response unless someone is specifically wondering about your illness.

8 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Toward vs. towards

We’re moving toward a hot debate here. Merriam-Webster prefers the simpler toward, but the informal towards is still acceptable. Take that how you will, but we’d recommend leaving the S off for business emails or formal essays.

9 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Adding an S for possessive words ending in S

Will you go to Alexis’ housewarming party or Williams’s game night? You’d never add an S if the word was plural (the kids’ toys), but things get trickier when a singular noun already ends in S. Some people never add an S; others only add it if you’d pronounce it out loud (Thomas’s dog vs. Mrs. Hastings’ dog); still others say to use it only after common nouns (the bus’s tires vs. Mr. Jones’ tires). You’ll probably get a different answer from anyone you ask. Learn the only letter in the English language that’s never silent.

10 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Splitting infinitives

To split or not to split: That is the question. When you use an infinitive (i.e. to before a verb), grammar nerds often argue you should never put another word between to and the verb, e.g. “to finish quickly” instead of “to quickly finish.” That’s normally no problem, but the rule is called into question with phrases like “have to really pay attention,” which has a slightly different meaning than “really have to pay attention”; the first implies paying extra attention, while the second emphasizes the importance of paying attention.

11 / 11
Nicole Fornabaio/, Shutterstock

Barbecue or barbeque

It’s spelled BBQ, so there must be a Q, right? Not so fast. Merriam-Webster lists barbecue as the preferred spelling, but barbeque is also accepted. Even true BBQ lovers can’t seem to agree though; there’s the National Barbecue & Grilling Association but the Kansas City Barbeque Society. You can always stay safe with BBQ. Always follow these 41 little grammar rules that make you sound smarter.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.