Proper, informal and incorrect English

Proper English isn’t correct English. At least, it’s not the only correct English in town. It’s more like a flavor. Or a style. It’s the type of English used in academic and literary and professional and diplomatic circles. An ambassador hosting a foreign emissary would never say, “Tell me you ain’t leaving so soon.”

Sticklers spend a lot of time telling people that informal English is incorrect English. That’s why people like me spend a lot of time pointing out that terms like “ain’t” aren’t wrong. You can use them if you want to. But we seldom get around to asking the next logical question: Do you want to?

Even people who understand that less-formal English is as correct as the proper kind still might like to master the proper kind. It’s nice to know how, even if you know it’s not necessary.

That said: Here’s how to use some of the terms formal types commonly consider “proper.” Keep this knowledge in your pocket for those times you want to avoid their silent judgment.


When you find yourself wondering whether “whom” would be appropriate, plug in “he” and “him.” For a sentence like “Who/whom did they give the job to,” tinker with “They gave the job to he” and “They gave the job to him.” Like “he,” “who” is a subject. Like “him,” “whom” is an object. So anyplace “him” would work you want “whom.”

Lay and lie

“Lay” takes an object. You lay the book on the table. (This is called a transitive verb.) “Lie” does not take an object. You lie down. (Called intransitive.) Need to use one of these words in the past tense?

That’s tougher, partly because the past tense of “lie” is, unfortunately, “lay.” Yesterday you lay down. When in doubt, check a dictionary. You’ll see next to “lie” the past forms “lay” and “lain,” meaning “lay” is the simple past tense and “lain” is the past participle (the one that goes with “have,” as in “I have lain”).

In the entry for “lay,” you see both the simple past tense and past participle are “laid.”

Who instead of that

“The man that they hired had a lot of experience.” This is considered less than optimal by proper types. That’s because a “that” can be a thing or a person but a “who” can be only a person, making it a more precise term.

While for although

“While going to college can help you get a good job, vocational training can too.” See how easy it would be to at first think “While going to college” is a time element, like “While going to college Jane studied French”? That’s the pretty-good logic behind the stickler rule that discourages using “while” anytime “though” or “although” would do.

None is

This stickler rule is based on the demonstrably wrong idea that “none” is necessarily singular. It’s not, so you can use “none” with a plural verb like “are”: “Of all the potential whistleblowers, none are willing to speak up.” But if you’re aiming to please those proper types, try to stick with a singular interpretation of “none”: “Of all the potential whistleblowers, none is willing to speak up.”

Like for such as

Proper types say “like” means “similar to” and that it does not mean “such as.” By that logic, you can’t say, “The store sells stationery items like cards and wrapping paper.” It’s not true, but it’s good to know they think it is.

Between and among

Still set on pleasing the proper types? Then know they prefer “between” for relationships of just two things or people. “Bert and Carrie divided the spoils between them.” When there are more than two, this rather silly standard says, you must use “among.” “Bert, Carrie and Danielle divided the spoils among themselves.”

Anxious for eager

Can we agree “anxious” has a negative connotation and that “eager” is more positive? Yes? Well, that’s why, in proper-language circles, “anxious” is frowned-upon to describe happy or hopeful anticipation.

— June Casagrande, author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know,” can be reached at