Tag Archives: grammar

Grammar for Foodies

If you are what you eat, make sure you’ve got a healthy diet of good grammar.


Or something like that. …Cookies sound tasty…


June 8, 2013 · 10:09 am

What’s the Diff? Past vs. Passed

A quick visit from your friendly neighborhood grammarian, here today to explain an easy mistake that spellcheck won’t discover!

Past vs. Passed

As with many homophones–words that sound the same but mean different things and are spelled differently–it’s easy for your brain to say “past” and your fingers to helpfully write “passed.”

Quick reminder: Past means “things that happened before” (as in not the present nor the future); or nearby, as in “beyond”; or sometimes, “to be on the further side of”

Passed, on the other hand, can mean the opposite of failing on a test; the past tense of “to pass,” as in “to have gone by previously”

The definition you want will help make it clear which of the two you need.


He passed his very important test. He was glad it was now in his past. In the first part, he did not fail the test, but got good marks (passed). The second sentence is about when the test took place; it is no longer in the future or the present (past).

Joanna walked past Betsy, refusing even to look at her; she passed her right by. Betsy, in return, looked right past Joanna.
Joanna walked on the other side of (past) Betsy, and she did it previously (she passed), so that sentence needs both words. Betsy uses a different meaning to look beyond (past), rather than at, Joanna.

Moving from the future into the past, time passed.
This might seem tricky, because both uses involve time, but it’s not so bad. The name we use for time that has already happened (the past) is the place that time, as a noun–that is, as a thing–is moving toward, so in this case it went by previously (passed).


So when you’re looking at a statement like “The black cat walked ____ Bryce,” how do you know which to use?

Look at the definitions, and try to fit one in.
-thing that happened before (past)
-nearby (past)
-to the other side of (past)
-to pass a test (passed)
-went by previously (passed)

“The black cat walked nearby Bryce.” The word you need is therefore past.

If the sentence were instead “The orange cat _____ Bryce,” the word “nearby” no longer fits. Now, “went by previously” is a better fit–“The orange cat previously went by Bryce.” That orange cat just passed him.


This can be tricky because your spellcheck won’t pick up on this mistake, so look over your text carefully to figure out which word you really need.

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Filed under Editing, writing

Oxford Comma: What is it, and how do I use it?

I’ve had a lot of book reviews lately; sorry about that! I’ve gotten a lot of reading done lately, and that doesn’t even include my recent re-reading (via audiobook) of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as read by Stephen Fry (short version: it’s great!).

But a friend today was moaning over people who didn’t understand the merits of the Oxford comma, and I said “Aha!” When I worked in newspapers, I never used the Oxford comma–and I may have even snubbed my nose at it a time or two (it’s true! Forgive me!). But when I worked in academia, it was required, and I came to love that little bugger.

The Oxford comma confuses people, but it’s actually very simple: When making a list, include a comma before the “and” in front of the final list item. Example: “Buy apples, oranges, and bananas.” The sweet little comma between “oranges” and “and”? That’s the Oxford comma.

Some people don’t use the Oxford comma–AP style, used by media organizations, rejects it–and that’s fine, most of the time. As long as the list still makes sense, it’s ok to drop it. The list “Buy apples, oranges and bananas” still makes sense without the Oxford comma! As long as you are consistent in your non-use of that third comma, you’re fine.


Sometimes you really do need that last comma for the sentence to make sense.

This fun little graphic does a good job explaining it:

If you don’t get it at first, read the second version aloud, pausing to take a breath at the comma.

But this is my absolute favorite visual explanation of the Oxford comma. It’s… a little less safe-for-all-audiences.

This has floated around the internet so much, I have no idea of the original source. Whoever you are, thank you! This is my favorite grammar comic of all time.

Strippers JFK and Stalin are just so fabulous.

Anyway, that’s the gist of the Oxford comma. Use it to make your writing clearer, or use it all the time, if you like. It’s just a helpful little tool to keep your lists organized.

And if you need some advanced grammar or style help, you can always hire a pro.


Filed under Editing, writing