The difference between “had you” and “have you”

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A client asked in a free grammar question:

What is the difference between had you surfed here before? and have you surfed here before?

The answer has to do with two of the verb tenses we use to describes actions in the past: “had you” is in the past perfect tense, and “have you” is in the present perfect.
Past perfect is used when we are talking about an event in the past relative to another event in the past.
Present perfect is used when we are talking about an event in the past relative to the present moment.
So, as we stand looking at the big waves crashing BEFORE we surf, you could turn to me and say “Have you surfed here before?”
But AFTER we have had our surfing fun, you would say “Had you surfed here before?” because our surfing experience of today is completed and in the past. Often the second time marker is included in the sentence. “Had you surfed here before today?” “Had humans landed on the moon before 1969?”

Parts of Speech: The article

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We always talk about the 8 parts of speech, but in reality, there are 9 parts of speech. The 9th part of speech is the article: the or a (an). I don’t know why we always say 8 parts of speech when there are 9. Perhaps it’s because some languages don’t use articles. Mastering the use of articles seems to be particularly tricky for people whose first language is Chinese or Russian.


One of my east Asian clients asked the following question:

I have a question on the reason why a definite article is not used when it would be reasonable in a sequence of the following sentences, which I came across when reading a paperback copy of Michael J. Sandel’s “JUSTICE” published by Penguin Books in 2010.

1. (Page 85, line 3-5) Consider another civic responsibility—jury duty. No one dies performing jury duty, but being called to serve on a jury can be onerous, especially if it conflicts with work or other pressing commitments.

2. (on the same page, line 11-13) Allowing a busy person to get out of jury duty by hiring a substitute would make both parties better off. Doing away with mandatory jury duty would be better still;

My question is why the word combination “jury duty” is used like a proper noun (phrase). I have learned that a word which has been mentioned before should be with a definite article. So, the second or later instance of “jury duty” in the above examples should be with a definite article, like “the jury duty” or “the mandatory jury duty.”
Could you explain why the author did not use the article?

We often do not use an article with the name of an activity, unless it is a specific instance of an activity.

I like fishing. (In this case the gerund is focused on the activity).
I like the fishing in the Fraser River. (The use of the article emphasizes the sense of the gerund as a noun).
But we can’t use “a” with fishing, except when “fishing” is used as an adjective with another noun.
I’m planning a fishing trip. (In this case the article is really for the noun, “trip”).
If I were a doctor, I could perhaps perform surgery. Then I could write:
I have surgery tomorrow. (name of activity)
I have a surgery tomorrow. (a specific instance of an activity)
So with jury duty, we can use “the” when there is a specific instance.
He has been selected for jury duty.
He will do the jury duty for a week.
In your question, item 1 only refers to jury duty as an abstract activity.
In item 2, we could use “the” with the first mention, to make the reference to jury duty a specific instance (having already been mentioned); however, we are still talking about it as a general concept, so it’s better to avoid the article.


Comma before as or because?

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Comma before asWhen do you use a comma before as or because?

Could you please explain when to use a comma before as and because?


Commas are used as grammatical markers to help convey meaning in sentences. This means we have to look at the function of because in the sentence. Remember the 8 parts of speech?

Because can function as a conjunction or as an adverb. How can you tell the difference?

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Do not use a comma before because when it’s an adverb.

When because relates to a noun phrase, it’s an adverb. It’s an adverb because it relates to why an action happened. I was promoted because of my competence. Notice that there’s no verb after “because.”

When because relates to a clause (i.e. contains subject and verb), then it’s a conjunction. I was promoted because I am competent.

As an adverb, because is not preceded by a comma. Example: I was arrested because of my inebriation. The meaning is clear without a comma.

For a conjunction, sometimes use a comma before because

However, as a conjunction, because may or may not take a comma. Unfortunately, there is no clear rule. It depends on the logic of the sentence.

Here’s an example: I put my socks on because my feet were cold. In this sentence, there is a clear, logical connection between the main verb—put—and the predicate phrase my feet were cold. But what if the logic is less clear?

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I drove home from the party because Kerry was drunk. In this sentence, the logic is not clear. Did Kerry’s inebriation force me to drive home from the party? Did I drive for no other reason than I was sober? Did I drive home because I didn’t want to be around a pickled Kerry? A rational person might assume that I was driving because Kerry was in no state to drive, and they would be quite correct, but as writers, we must not leave room for doubt if we can avoid it. In this case, a comma would help clarify. I drove home from the party, because Kerry was drunk. By using a comma, the emphasis is on the main clause, which means “I” as the subject. So the important part is that it’s me driving, not Kerry. This helps to clarify that Kerry’s inebriation was the motivating factor for me driving. It still doesn’t clarify whether or not I left her at the party.

So, to determine the usage of the comma with “because,” we must consider if there is a possible logic that is not intended, and use the comma to eliminate any confusion on the part of the reader. This is really the most challenging thing for writers. We usually know what we want to say, and we believe we have said it. But a good writer (or a good editor) will recognize when alternative meanings will arise in the minds of readers and craft sentences that are clear and meaningful.

Comma before as?

Commas before as can be more tricky. Like because, as can be used as a conjunction or as an adverb. (Notice how I used it as an adverb in the preceding sentence.) Again, when it is used as an adverb, you don’t use a comma. Notice the difference in the following two sentences.

I drove the car home as it was snowing.

I drove the car home, as it was snowing.

In the first sentence, as is used as a coordinating adverb. Unlike the use of because as an adverb, here the noun phrase contains a verb. Although the phrase “it was snowing” can stand as an independent sentence, in this case, it acts as a noun: it is a statement of a fact. Two things happened simultaneously. In the second sentence, as is used as a logical connector so it’s a conjunction. For some unknown reason, the snow motivated me to drive. Perhaps the alternative driver was not confident of driving in the snow. Perhaps Kerry was too drunk to drive in the snow.

In addition, as can be used to make a simile. (The clouds are as fluffy as cotton.) In this case both instances of as are adverbs. Obviously, a comma before as in this case would be wrong: The clouds are, as fluffy as cotton. But what about a longer, more convoluted sentence? I drove carefully through the snowflakes falling as softly as feathers. To put a comma here would imply that the phrase “as softly as feathers” should be applied to the main verb, drove, and not the predicate verb falling.

Personally, I like to use a comma before “as” when it is used as a logical connector; however, I learned while researching the answer to this questions, that there is no rule requiring this. If the sentence is simple and the logic is clear, then there is no absolute need for a comma before “as.”

Do you know the 8 parts of speech?  Try our grammar quizzes!

Em dash, en dash or hyphen?

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You can use an em dash, en dash or hyphen to separate items in a sentence. But which one do you use? For a while I’ve been meaning to review use of the two forms of dashes: em dash and en dash. Finally, a client asked about the use of the em dash, so I prepared this as an answer and included the hyphen, just to be thorough.

Em dash, en dash or hyphen?

There are three horizontal lines of different lengths available on the keyboard. The hyphen is shortest; the em dash is longest.
This is a hyphen –
This is an en dash –
This is an em dash—

The names of the dashes are taken from comparison with other letters in a typographer’s kit. An em dash is the width of a capital M; an en dash is the width of a capital N.

The em dash and en dash are used differently in the US and UK. Styles may vary. The information below is generally true in the US and Wikipedia says they are appropriate for APA and Chicago. You may or may not have to adhere to a specific style in your book, but you should be consistent.

A hyphen is used to join two words to form a compound (usually a compound adjective). It’s created by a key on the top row of the keyboard, second from the right. That’s the easy one.

An en dash is to indicate a range of values. Bill Clinton’s Presidency was 1992 – 2000. An en dash is normally sandwiched between between two spaces, so when you type “space-hyphen-space” in MS Word, it will convert the hyphen to an en dash, which is handy because I don’t know the key combination to make an en dash.

An em dash is used as you indicated in your question—to separate out some information. It can be used as an appositive (explanation) or for emphasis. In general, the use of the em dash to provide additional information is used when the information is surprising, or the writer wants to give it more emphasis. An em dash is not preceded or followed by a space. To type an em dash on a Macintosh keyboard, use shift-option-hyphen.

British English vs. American English

British English uses an en dash – with spaces – instead of an em dash for asides and appositives.

American English uses an em dash—without spaces—for asides and appositives.

By the way, you can also use a colon for an aside. A colon is used to expand or explain. Where I find the em dash useful is that not only does it begin the aside, it also shows the end of the aside, so it can be used mid-sentence. You can’t really do this with a colon, so only use it to expand or explain at the end of a sentence.

I looked up some of this information on Wikipedia:

Here’s another guide to the em dash. I like how the writer shows the differences in emphasis between using the em dash, parentheses and a colon.

Who or whom? A special case.

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Most of the time you use “whom” as the object of a verb, and “who” as the subject of a verb. However, there is a special case when this is not true.

I was asked the following grammar questions:

Which of the following is correct?

“We are not who we have been”
“We are not whom we have been”

“I am not who I will be.”
“I am not whom I will be.”

This is certainly a tricky situation. Although it appears “whom” is correct because it is not the subject of the clause—it is the object of the verb “are”—in this case we use “who.” The reason is that following forms of the verb “to be” we use the nominative (subject) case. I have some discussion of this on my grammar help page on pronouns.

This is the same rule that makes it correct, when you are asked for by name on the phone, to answer “this is he” (or “this is she.”)

The Usage of Since and Ever Since

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A reader asks the following grammar question: Can you explain the difference between Since and Ever Since?

This is a great question from an English language learner, since these two usages are quite different even though they can overlap. Notice how the word since above is used as a logical connector meaning because? This use is known as a conjunctive adverb. A conjunction joins two thoughts, and an adverb describes an action, so a conjunctive adverb joins two thoughts and provides information about the action.

That tells us about the 8 parts of speech, but what about the usage of since and ever since?

Usage of since and ever since

Use ever since to describe an action that occurs after another point in time. This could be in the form of an adverbial phrase.

Ever since I joined the soccer team, I have been losing weight.

I have been losing weight ever since I began playing soccer.

You can use since in the same way: to indicate time.

I have been losing weight since I started playing soccer. (From the time that I began playing soccer.)

Use since by itself to indicate a logical connection.

But since can also be used as a conjunctive adverb to make a logical connection meaning because.

Since I have been playing soccer, I have been burning lots of calories. (Meaning “because” I have been playing soccer; in this case, the word “since” can also be used as a time (adverbial) function.)

I decided to go to college, since education will help me earn more money.

When you see the word “ever” you know that the usage is as an adverb, because “ever” is related to time. Think about phrases like “for ever” and words like “whenever.”

Got a grammar question? Use the link above to ask.

Compose or comprise?

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A reader asks “Can I use ‘comprise of’? Can you explain the difference between compose and comprise?”

These two verbs have similar meanings, so they are commonly confused.

Comprise means to make up something.

Compose to be made up of some contents.

Think of it this way: contents comprise the whole; the whole is composed of its contents. Or 9 men comprise a team; a team is composed of 9 men. When you start with the contents, use comprise. When you start with the whole, use composed of.

The Merriam Webster dictionary cites a use of comprise exactly like compose, although it warns you that you are likely to be criticized for this usage. The comments around this entry are interesting, pointing out that just because a dictionary cites how a word is used incorrectly doesn’t mean the dictionary endorses this incorrect usage. Nonetheless, many words do change over time due to usage, even meaning the opposite of their original meanings.

On the other hand, with this duo, compose has quite a number of meanings in addition to being made up of some contents. To compose also means to create a musical or written work. We write in composition books. But to be composed, means to be calm. So I can say “I am composed” when I mean I’m feeling peaceful. Or I can say “I am composed of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen.”

To date or up to now? What’s the difference?

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A client asks this question:

  1. I haven’t received my payment until now.
  2. I haven’t received my payment so far.
  3. I haven’t received my payment as yet.
  4. I haven’t received my payment to date.

Please explain the differences in the meanings?

As far as I can see, 1 is a bit ambiguous. Did the payment arrive now? Or are you still without payment. If the sentence were “I hadn’t received my payment until now” it would be clear that payment had been received. But in its current form, I would judge it to mean that payment has not been received, but I’m doubtful. This is a clear case where careful grammar is important because the purpose of grammar is to convey information.

As far as the other three sentences go, it’s pretty clear that someone is behind in their payments. So pay up!

Gerund or infinitive?

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There is no obstacle to registering the company.


There is no obstacle to register the company.

Notice that the first sentence uses the -ing form of the verb. This is called a gerund. The gerund is the name of an activity; hence, it is actually a noun. Sometimes we say a gerund is a verb used as a noun. (Remember, the 8 parts of speech are really based on the usage of words, so the same or similar words can easily be two or more different parts of speech.)

The first sentence is right, but why?

I’ve had an ongoing conversation with a client about the rules for using gerunds vs. infinitives. To me, the point was that you can substitute a gerund with another noun. There is no obstacle to his plan.

But I found this nifty rule on Use an infinitive for activities in the future and use an gerund for activities before or at the same time as the main verb.

Now, this rule can be broken regularly, so let’s call it a rule of thumb. Certain verbs that indicate actions that will be in the future will likely take an infinitive:

I want to…

I intend to…

I plan to…

Part of the problem is that “to” is part of the infinitive form in English. But “to” is a preposition, and we often use a gerund after a preposition.

I am a fan of playing…

I like dessert after eating dinner…

I admit to stealing…

So my suggestion to sort this out is to ask whether or not the preposition “to” is necessary for the preceding verb. If so, then you should use a gerund.

Here’s a sentence I came across in a Master’s thesis I was editing:

Moreover, the work of Slamanig (2012) adds that economic factors will change the demand/supply model of the industry and will be crucial to understand the future of that market.

Should it be “crucial to understanding…”?

I think yes, for the following reasons.

1. “to” is needed for crucial.

2. “crucial to” can be followed by a noun.

Now, even my second reason is not sufficient, since the sentence “It is crucial to understand gravity if you want to skateboard” is perfectly correct.

But this sentence could also be rearranged into “Understanding gravity is crucial to skateboarding.”

Notice how in these two examples, the form of the two verbs was the same in each example. Either they were both gerunds or they were both infinitives.

Got questions about English grammar? Please use the link to the right to ask an editor.

Toe the line or Tow the line?

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Lately I’ve been seeing people posting about being asked to “tow the line.” Now, I can imagine why this expression is used if I envision the act of towing something with a rope. But in fact, the expression should be “toe the line.” Instead of imagining towing something on a line, imagine standing in line. Your toes are at the line. This is the meaning of “toe the line.” It means to remain in line or to obey.

Speaking of misheard, or miswritten sayings. I read in a newspaper article no less, the expression “make ends meat.” I can’t even imagine how the writer got this wrong, since clearly the expression is about pulling two things together to meet, not turning it into an edible animal product. Usually we use this to refer to making our income and expenses come together. If we have a limited income, it may be difficult to pay our bills; hence, it’s hard to make ends meet.

Do you know any other miswritten sayings? Let me know. Use the Free Grammar Help link in the sidebar.