Confusables: Which vs. That/Wake vs. Awake

How do you know whether to use ‘which’ or ‘that’ in a sentence? Because these are two of the most confusable words in English, it helps to remember two rules.

The first is simple: ‘that’ refers to people, animals, and nonliving objects; ‘which’ refers to nonliving objects or animals but never to people.

The second rule is also simple: ‘that’ is used with restrictive clauses, and ‘which’ is used with nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause can’t be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence. IT IS ESSENTIAL. A nonrestrictive clause is NONESSENTIAL. The clause could be removed without changing the overall meaning. An example:
The large garden that is behind the house has both flowers and vegetables.
The large garden, which is behind the house, has both flowers and vegetables.
The first sentence infers there are several gardens, and this is about the garden behind the house. Take away the essential clause ‘that is behind the house,’ and the meaning of the sentence changes. The second sentence is talking about one particular garden, not one of several. Remove ‘which is behind the house’—and it doesn’t change a thing.

Notice that a ‘which’ clause is always set off by commas; a ‘that’ clause never is. And when the choice between ‘which vs. that’ isn’t clear, ‘that’ is the safest pick.

Let’s quickly look at another word pair: wake or awake. Both mean ‘to rouse or wake from sleep’. Wake is most commonly heard and is often used with ‘up.’ Examples:
Please wake me early tomorrow morning.
Please awake (or awaken) me early tomorrow morning.
The sun will wake me up when it shines through the window.
The sun will awake (or awaken) me when it shines through the window.

“Wake up and smell the coffee,” which means “See the truth, how things really are,” could also be expressed, “Awake and smell the coffee.” The tone of ‘awake’ is slightly more formal.

Confusable Words: Who vs. Whom and Lay vs. Lie

Within the English language, there are a number of words that are often confused for one another, both in writing and in everyday speech; none are more commonly mistaken as whom vs who and lie vs lay.

Once you know the difference between whom and who, it’s easy to keep them separate. As common with pronouns, who has two distinct forms, the subject: who, and the object: whom. So, much like he vs. him, who is always the subject of a sentence and whom is always the object. For example, “Who gave the ball to whom?” is a correct sentence, as “who” is the subject and “whom” is the object. However, the sentence “Whom do you know in Denver?” is also correct, because even though “whom” appears at the beginning of the sentence, it is the object, with “you” being the subject.

The confusion of lay (a transitive verb meaning “to put” or “to place”) and lie (an intransitive verb that means “to recline”) often stems from the fact that lie’s past tense has the same spelling as lay’s present tense: both are spelled “lay.” For many, lie vs lay grammar is tricky, but the easiest way to tell when one word should be used over another is if the verb is directly followed by a direct object. “She lay the hat down” uses the verb lay, because the direct object, “the hat,” directly follows the verb. “That cat lay on the bed,” however, uses the verb lie in its past tense, as “on the bed” is a prepositional phrase, not an object.

Many people view these differences as too subtle to learn. However, people wanting to sound professional in both their speech and writing would do well to observe the obvious differentiations.


Apostrophes can be bewildering; they have caused many arguments, and even seasoned writers have an occasional wrestling match with them. When used properly, the apostrophe adds clarity to writing, but improper use can cause confusion.

Before an explanation of when to use apostrophes, it is necessary to discuss plural nouns. With the exception of words that do not change form–such as “moose”, “shrimp”, or “geese”–words that indicate multiple objects require nothing more than an s. “Pickles”, “onions”, and “American and Cheddar cheeses” need only an s when plural, otherwise, writing would be riddled with apostrophes.

In the English language, apostrophes have two major uses: possession and contractions. Of the two, the more abused are the possessive apostrophes. One apostrophe after the subject conveys ownership: “Bill’s cheeseburger”. Multiple owners of that cheeseburger changes where the apostrophe is placed–it is moved to the outside to call attention to the multiple subjects: the “apostrophes after s” rule. “The kids’ cheeseburgers” tells the reader that there are lots of kids, and they all have burgers.

Another common misuse of possessive apostrophes occurs in sentences that refer to a series of years. Years are incapable of owning anything; according to apostrophes rules, an apostrophe is not used.

Possessive Apostrophes Examples:
Plural: “The chickens were in their nests.” Neither noun requires a possessive apostrophe.
Possessive: “The chicken’s nest was plundered by a fox.” This apostrophe indicates ownership of the nest.
Possessive: “The chickens’ nests were full of eggs.” Many chickens own these nests, so the apostrophe moves to the outside.
Years Plural: “In the 1980s, egg production rose sharply.” The 1980s don’t own the eggs, and they don’t own CD collections, either.

The easiest of the apostrophes rules deals with the combination of words, or “contractions”. “Do not” becomes “don’t”, “was not” becomes “wasn’t”, “did not” is “didn’t”, and so forth. Rather than gluing the two words together, the apostrophe is a sort of placeholder for any missing letters.

Contraction Apostrophes Examples:
Right: “The chicken didn’t want to eat the cheeseburger.” “Not” lost its “o” and gained an apostrophe.
Wrong: “The fox was’nt thinking about cheeseburgers, it wanted those eggs.” The apostrophe should be where the “o” was.

To further illustrate when to use apostrophes, here are some examples with all the apostrophe types and plenty of plurals. Keep an eye out for those dreaded “apostrophes after s”.

A Few Last Apostrophes Examples:
“The building manager’s ladders were stacked against the wall, but they’ve all fallen over.”
“In the water, trapped air in geese’s feathers keep them buoyant and warm.”
“All five were gone, but I couldn’t be sure the squirrels’ raid on the bird feeder was over.”
“Women’s hats in the 1920s had many styles, and a woman’s choice in hats was quite personal.”
“The picnic tables were set with the chef’s best dishes; the ants’ scouting party had discovered a goldmine.”

Four Forms of the English Verb

The grammar rules for the English verb are varied and numerous. The English verb expresses an action or a state of being. There are four basic forms of English verb tenses: present tense, past tense, present participle and past participle.

For an English regular verb, like ‘paint,’ the rules of English verb conjugations are clear: add ‘ed’ to create the past tense, add ‘ing’ to create the present participle and add an auxiliary verb (like has or have) before the past tense to create the past participle. The English verb conjugations for the word paint, then, are: paint, painted, painting and has/have painted.

Conjugating an irregular English verb, however, is more challenging. Most languages have a small number of irregular verbs but English has such a lengthy list that exception seems to be the rule. There are several classifications of English irregular verbs, making the rules of conjugation seem loose.

Often, vowel reduction and assimilation of dentals are used, as in the verbs hide, hid, hiding and has/have hidden. Additional examples of irregular English verbs are: blow, blew, blowing, has/have blown; cut, cut, cutting, has/have cut; and drive, drove, driving, has/have driven. In these cases, as in many others, it is easier to memorize the conjugations than to memorize the classification rules that apply to conjugation.