When to Use Was and Were


You may not think about it, but do you know when to use was and were? Believe it or not, most native English speakers use these intuitively. However, if someone asks us why or when to use them, we stutter and can’t explain it.

Common terms used in this post:

Subject: What is doing the action.

Verb: The action that is performed.

There are only two rules to remember:

1. Subject-verb agreement. If the subject is just one person or thing, use was. If the subject is more than one person or thing, use were.

a. I was going to wash my car, but it rained.

b. The dog was barking, so I couldn’t sleep.

c. He was my favorite speaker.

a. We were going to the zoo, but our car broke down.

b. The kittens were playing all day.

c. James and I were going to play Smallworld, but we played Zombiecide instead.

2. If I and I wish statements. When you say, “I wish…” or “If I…,” use were.

When talking about someone else, were signifies something that will more than likely not happen, and was suggests it is a possibility.

a. I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener.

b. If I were president, I would increase minimum wage.

c. I wish he was on the football team. (it’s a possibility, so use was).

My personal tricks to remember these rules: one equals was and the Oscar Meyer wiener song. If you have any fun tips about was and were, feel free to share them below!

References: Grammar Girl, grammar video

Lay vs. Lie: Which One Should You Use?


Grammar rules are sometimes difficult to remember. I try little tips to remember how to correctly use a word, and in the case of lay vs. lie, I sing U2’s Love and Peace.

Lay down/Lay down/Lay your sweet lovely on the ground/Lay your love on the track…

The song triggers the correct usage of lay, and the rest comes naturally to me. I admit, even though it is listed correctly below, I have never used the word ‘lain’. I imagine I would get some strange looks if I said, “I have lain down every afternoon this week.” If you are speaking and use laid, I doubt anyone would correct you, but make sure you use the correct word while writing. No matter how awkward it seems 😉

Note: The usage of these lay vs. lie depends on the tense in which you are speaking.

Common terms used in this post:

Verb: an action (what something is doing)

Object: the thing (object) that is doing the action or affected by the action (verb)

Tense: when something is happening

a. present – it is happening at this moment

b. past – it happened before this moment

Participle: a word that acts as an adjective and verb (a form of have in this instance)

Rule 1: To recline (think of a person)

Present: lie, lying

Past: lay

Participle: has/have/had lain


I lie down every day at 5 o’clock for a power nap.

She was lying on the ground when I found her.

Rule 2: To put or place something (think of verb+object)

Present: lay, laying

Past: laid

Participle: has/have/had laid


The birds lay eggs.

The child laid the book on the table.

Rule 3: To say something that is not true (notice the spelling differences)

Present: lie, lying

Past: lied

Participle: has/have/have lied


Sometimes it’s hard not to tell a lie.

I lied to her.

If you’d like to quiz yourself, try the lay vs. lie quiz. And feel free to share your tips in the comments below!

Sources: The Bluebook of Grammar, Webster’s, my brain

That vs. Which: What to Do


That and which – you see and use them all the time. My college grammar professor once explained that we naturally speak these words correctly, but when writing, they are misused. I think because we are raised to use them correctly we never stop to think about the rules. So, for those who need a refresher, here’s a quick guide on how and when to use that and which.

Common terms used in this post:

Clause: a sentence or a sentence-like section within a sentence

Essential clause: A clause that needs to be there in order for the sentence to make sense. Without the clause, the sentence’s meaning would be unclear. (It is essential to the sentence).

Nonessential clause: A clause that is not important to the meaning of the sentence. It is often additive. (It is nonessential to the sentence’s meaning).

Rule 1: Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups and things. For animals, this rule depends on the style guide you are using and varies. I prefer who for domesticated animals.


Dr. Quain is the one who taught me these rules.

Dr. Quain belongs to the faculty that assisted me with graduation.

It was the cat who hurt his foot.

Rule 2: That introduces essential clauses. If you take everything after the word that/which out, and the sentence loses its meaning or doesn’t make sense, use that.


I’m going to buy the car that has the best gas mileage.

He only watches shows that make him laugh.

Rule 3: Which introduces nonessential clauses (place comma before when using). It is also used if a selection or decision is implied (comma not needed).


We watched him go down the hall alone, which darkened the further he went.

We won the game, which puts us in first place.

I don’t know which road to take.

Rule 4: If this, that, these, and those have introduced an essential clause, use which.


These designs, which do not have approval, will be tough to apply.

That dog doesn’t know which bone to eat.


The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, Grammar Girl, my brain

If you have any other tips, feel free to share them below!

How to Use a Semicolon


Semicolons (;) are sexy when used correctly. They are so cool, they can not only replace a comma but also an entire word. Many writers often misuse them or use a comma instead.

Some writers discourage semicolon usage in Web writing because they are hard to see, but sometimes you have to use them in order to save space and manage your tone. Periods are often hard stops, and semicolons are a good way to keep the reader reading and keep you from sounding abrupt.

Common terms used in this post:

Conjunction = A word that connects words or groups of words. Eg: and, but, or

Here’s a quick guide to semicolons:

Rule 1: Use a semicolon to join two complete sentences if you want to eliminate the conjunction.

Example: We’ll talk tomorrow; I’ll give you the details.

Rule 2: Use a semicolon between two sentences with a conjunction if the first sentence has a comma.

Example: When I finish the list, I will email you; and you can start your project.

Rule 3: Use a semicolon before introductory words such as however, therefore, and for example, if they introduce a complete sentence. Then use a comma after the introductory word.

Example: I went to the bookstore; however, I did not find the book I needed.

Rule 4: It is acceptable to use either a semicolon or a comma before an introductory word if it introduces a list. Use a comma after the introductory word.

Example: I bought all of my supplies; for example, pens, paper, stapler, and laptop.

Example (with comma): I bought all of my supplies, for example, pens, paper, stapler, and laptop.

Rule 5: Semicolons separate multiple units that have commas within them. Think multiple cities and states. Note the semicolon before and.

Example: We traveled to Chicago, Illinois; Nashville, Tennessee; and Austin, Texas.

For those punctuation nerds out there, check out the 13 little-known punctuation marks. My favorite is the sarcmark; what’s yours?

Sources: The Blue Book of Punctuation and Grammar, my brain

How to Change Passive Voice to Active


Recently I have noticed an increase in passive voice, and many people don’t know how to correct it. Passive voice is not grammatically wrong, but you usually want to avoid using it because the quality and clarity of your writing may suffer. This is especially important in articles and other nonfiction writing when every word matters.

What the heck is passive voice? Passive voice is an indirect way of writing something. Once you learn the differences and how to spot it, you can easily edit sentences into active voice.

Common terms used in this post:

Subject = Performs the verb and usually comes at the beginning of the sentence

Verb = the action of a sentence

Object = the thing the verb was done to, often at the end of a sentence

How to spot passive sentences:

The subject of the sentence becomes the object, or it is dropped entirely.

The object becomes the subject.

There is often a ‘to-be’ verb or the prepositions ‘of’ or ‘by’.


1. The population of the city grew by more than 20 percent this year.

2. The award was won by the school system.

3. Rodgers has been throwing the ball at his coach.

4. The store was not open.

Now, look at the above sentences and ask, “how can I rewrite that in a more straightforward way?” This rewrite may change passive to active. Many times if you switch the current subject and object in the sentence, the sentence will be active (example 2). Also, making the subject possessive may work (example 1), and if you are ambitious, try to replace two or three words with one (examples 3, 4).

Here are the rewrites:

1. The city’s population grew by more than 20 percent this year.

2. The school system won the award.

3. Rodgers threw the ball at his coach.

4. The store was closed.

If you’d like to practice editing into active voice, try these tests. They will even grade them! 🙂

Towson University

English Club





Hyphen Help with Words


As we discussed in Hyphen Help, there are specific rules for using hyphens with words. And the dictionary is your friend.

This week, I’m going to cover the rules of hyphens with one word. Should you use a hyphen or combine the prefix and root word? It depends.

Common terms used in this post:

Prefix = comes at the front of a word (two to four letters)

Suffix = comes at the end of a word (two to four letters)

Proper noun = A particular person (being) or thing, capitalized

Vowel = a, e, i, o, u, sometimes y

Root word = a word within a word that has a prefix or suffix

* Most times it is okay not to use a hyphen. If in doubt, look it up or go without. The following rules are when to use a hyphen with a word:

1. Use a hyphen when a prefix comes before a proper noun. As you can see combining them would look a little odd because the proper noun is capitalized.

Examples: un-American, non-Baptist

2. Use a hyphen if a prefix ends in a or i and the root word begins with the same letter.

Examples: semi-intoxicated, ultra ambitious

3. Hyphenate all words that begin with self. The only exceptions are selfish and selfless.

Examples: self-addressed, self-supporting

4. If the prefix is -ex, use a hyphen.

Examples: ex-husband, ex-Marine

5. If the prefix is re-, only use a hyphen when re- means again and not using a hyphen would create another word.

Examples: re-sort vs. resort; re-creation vs. recreation; re-covered vs. recovered

When to not use a hyphen and just combine the parts to create word:

1. When a prefix ends in one vowel and a root word begins with a different one, combine them.

Examples: antiaircraft, coauthor, preamble

2. If you get a double e or double o, combine the parts. However there are exceptions, so be sure to look it up if you are not sure.

Examples: cooperative, proactive

Exceptions: co-owner, de-emphasize

(The only reason I could see these being exceptions is because they would look odd without the hyphen. If you know the rule, or have another opinion, I’d love to hear it!)

Sources: The Blue Book of Punctuation and Grammar, merriamwebster.com, my brain