Bad grammar can cost you an opportunity -- a speaking engagement, a referral, an  interview, a job, and you might not ever know about it. You've seen that phrase, "I'm silently correcting your grammar," emblazoned on t-shirts and coffee mugs, right?

Call me a grammar nerd or a snob. I don't care. I've been called worse. I've been called a "wordsmith," a term tossed out by folks who undervalue good writing. What's worse is that some have used it as a verb, as in "Amy, I'll leave it to you to wordsmith." These are not the eagle eye managers you have to worry about. But I digress. 

When it comes to writing and talking about what you do, words are your currency. Proper grammar isn't a nice to have; it's all you have, and your first impression is hanging in the balance.

Consider what Geoff Scott, a career adviser and resume expert at ResumeCompanion wrote in an email to me. "When someone applies to work here, we first scrutinize their resume (of course). Content is the most significant part we evaluate, but grammar mistakes are definitely taken into consideration, primarily because they make it a lot easier to weed out candidates. If an applicant can't be bothered to make sure their resume is pristine, they'd be a poor fit at RC."

OK, are you worried about the grammar blunders you're unknowingly making? No worries. Here are seven six grammar pitfalls and hacks for avoiding them. Just in time for National Grammar Day, which is Sunday, March 4.

1. I vs. Me

One of my biggest grammar pet peeves is when people use "I" when they should use "me." My theory is people think "I" sounds smarter. And who doesn't want to sound smart in an interview or when speaking in front of an audience? My favorite is when people let you in on something by starting with "Between you and I..." Wrong, wrong, wrong.  

Grammar hack: Use subjective form (I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they) if the person is the subject of the verb: She and I ate lunch. You and he left on time.

Use objective form (me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them) if the person comes after a preposition: Between you and me, it's curtains for her and them.

And watch for the hidden words.

A former newspaper colleague of mine pointed out that when "than" and "as" are involved, things get tricky, because they can introduce some silent, but understood words. Examples: "She is older than me," She is older than I [am]," She is as old as me" and "She is as old as I am." All are acceptable. Thanks to Brian Throckmorton, now research editor for Kentucky's Legislative Research Commission.

2. Who vs. Whom

"Who" refers to a subject, while "whom" refers to an object. 

The hack: Brian advises rephrasing the statement as a question, and then answering with a complete sentence using "he" or "him." If your answer is "him," then you'd use "whom" in the original statement. You could even remember that "him" and "whom" both end in 'm,' if that makes it easier to remember to keep these two together. If your answer calls for "he," you'd use who.  


Mark is the one _____ we saw. Who did we see? We saw him. Mark is the one whom we saw.

Matt is the one _____ went first. Who went first? He did. Matt is the one who went first.

3. That vs. Who, Whose and Whom

I hear people say "that" for other people all the time. "Who" is for people; "that" is for everything else.

The hack: Who and whom are for humans. Think human -- who-man.


The people who work here are nice. 

John is the guy to whom my friend is married. (Not: John is the guy that my friend is married to.)

The book that she's reading looks good.

4. Semicolon vs. comma

I rarely use the semicolon. Generally, I prefer two short sentences to one long one. Still, if you must use a semicolon, you'll know you're doing it right if the two parts of the sentence can be independent thoughts, or two complete sentences.

The hack: Think of the semi-colon as a super comma. Maybe inside your head say "Semicolon! Super Comma!" in the voice you'd use for "Super Man!" or "Wonder Woman!" FYI, this hack comes from a super hero copy editor pal who prefers to wield her powers under the cloak of privacy.

PS: Be careful when using the semicolon to separate items in a list. You should do this only when the items you are listing contain commas. My pal Brian offered this example: "He produced 'Me, Myself, and Irene'; 'One, Two, Three'; 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'; and 'Curly Sue.'"

5. Affect vs. Effect

I often have to look up this one. In most cases, affect is a verb, and effect is a noun.

For example: The company's new leaders want to affect change, and they hope it will have a positive effect on employee morale.

The hack: Thanks again to my super hero copy editor, because I'm never again going to have to check myself on this one. Her advice is to think of the state abbreviations for Virginia -- VA -- and Nebraska -- NE. VA = verb affect. NE = noun effect. 


6. Try vs. Try And

You want to let someone know when you are going to try to call them. You are not going to try and call them.

The hack: Brian suggests treating "try" the way you treat "fail." Don't write "I know he'll try and call you" if you wouldn't write "I know he'll fail and call you."

7. Male and Female vs. Man and Woman

The former are adjectives; the latter are nouns. I'm a woman, not a female. My daughters go to school with boys and girls, not males and females. There are male and female students at my girls' school.

The hack: Think of Helen Reddy's famous song, "I Am Woman," because "I am a female, hear me roar" doesn't have the same ring to it. (It does make for a good personal theme song.)

Now go forth and tell the world with confidence about why you're the perfect fit, the ideal candidate, the one for the job. Continue to master grammar. It's your opportunity-nabbing currency.