YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG

10 Grammar Tips to Help You Avoid Common Mistakes

I’ve been doing this whole writing-and-editing thing for a long while now, yet it never surprises me that I constantly see the same mistakes from one author to the next. As a writer, I try to avoid these mistakes (not “try and avoid”). As an editor, it’s my job to fix the mistakes. As a reader, I cringe whenever I come across these mistakes when they appear in published books.

I can’t explain why so many people make these common mistakes. I know it’s my job to help them, and I know I should not judge harshly, but—dangit!—it’s annoying. These mistakes (and oh-so-many others) are like nails on a chalkboard. Cringe! They make me cringe, I tell you!

As communicators, we ought not make our audiences cringe. Or misunderstand what we mean. We can avoid those issues when we correct common grammar mistakes that plague so much writing. So. Much. Writing.

So. Much.

Please stop making your audience cringe. Here are ten tips you can take to rid the nails-on-a-chalkboard cringefest from your writing:

  1. Take Care of the Homonyms
    Affect/Effect, its/it’s, there/their/they’re, and plenty more confusing words that sound alike or are spelled alike sully many pieces of writing, from that email to your team leader to the manuscript you just sent to the umpteenth agent you’ve queried. Learn your homonyms. Know which ones you frequently struggle with. At the bare minimum, run spell-check to catch the ones you know you always miss—e.g., ensure/insure, lead/led, past/passed, etc.

    “Let me assure you that you should insure your new car in order to ensure that you won’t get slammed if you get into an accident.”

  2. Practice Your Punctuation
    A plethora of commas that turn your work into an annoying run-on sentence. Overused exclamation points that make you sound angry or shrill or both. Dropped periods that make your reader wonder if your thought was completed or if you forgot something. Punctuation makes a difference. Commas and periods aren’t interchangeable. Too many exclamation points add so much emphasis that nothing is emphasized. Remember that commas join series, connect clauses, and set-off appositives. Periods end sentences. Use punctuation as a tool to add clarity to your writing.

    “Hi, Sydney. It was great to see you today! I enjoyed our conversation, and I am looking forward to next steps.

  3. Focus on Subject–Verb Agreement
    Singular subjects take singular verbs; plural subjects take plural verbs. Easy peasy, right? Apparently not. It can be tricky when the true subject of a sentence is miles away from its verb. When intervening phrases or modifiers separate subject from verb, bad things can happen. Take a moment to parse the sentence in order to identify the subject and to verify that the verb is in agreement.

    “Her ever-growing collection of books is spilling off the shelves and on to chairs and tables and the floor.”

  4. Be Consistent With Pronoun Usage
    Your self-improvement post starts out using “she” but then switches to “they” and later to “you” before continuing with “we.” Who on earth are you talking about? Who are you addressing? Varying your pronouns isn’t necessarily clever, and it can be downright confusing. It’s great to strive for diversity and inclusion, so go ahead and use “he,” “she,” and “they” in various anecdotes—but don’t use them in the same anecdote. Don’t start by saying that “We recognize that our people are our biggest asset.” followed immediately by “So you do whatever you can to ensure our people are treated fairly.”

    We recognize that our people are our biggest asset. So we do whatever we can to ensure our people are treated fairly.”

  5. Rewrite Those Series That Aren’t True Series
    It’s such a common mistake—and an easily corrected one—to treat parts of a sentence as a series when they’re really not. Sometimes you need to drop the Chicago comma <gasp!> because it’s not actually connecting items in a series <oh.>. If it’s a series, it needs to match like with like, whether nouns, verbs, or phrases. This is a series: “cats, dogs, and turtles.” This also is a series: “She fed the cats, pet the dogs, and stared at the turtles.” This, however, is not a series: “She fed the cats, pet the dogs, and the turtles got nowhere fast.” Rather, this is a poorly punctuated example of one clause with a compound predicate joined to another clause.

    “She fed the cats and pet the dogs, and the turtles got nowhere fast.”

  6. Stop With the Plural ‘S Already
    As I write this, the holiday’s are coming up fast. Soon we’ll be sending card’s to our neighbor’s, the Smith’s. See what I did there? If you’ve been using apostrophes to pluralize words, you’ve been doing it wrong. Holidays. Cards. Neighbors. The Smiths. In our example, neither the holidays, the cards, the neighbors, nor the Smiths own anything. There’s just a lot of them. This habit is pretty easy to break. Put it on your list of New Year’s resolutions.

    “As I write this, the holidays are coming up fast. Soon we’ll be sending cards to our neighbors, the Smiths. Jo Smith‘s house is the most festive in town.”

  7. Put Your Modifiers in the Right Place
    Misplaced modifiers (sometimes called squinting modifiers—presumably because they make your readers squint while trying to make sense of the sentence) can easily render a sentence incomprehensible. And, often, unintentionally hilarious. If you’re going to have lunch with a guy who has a glass eye named Dylan, you might consider asking why he chose that name for his glass eye. Or maybe you could ask Dylan about his glass eye. Think, too, about whether you’re only having lunch with Dylan or whether you’re having lunch only with Dylan or whether you’re having lunch with Dylan only. In short, think about what your modifiers really modify and then place those modifiers as near as possible to whatever they modify.

    “I’m only having lunch with Dylan, who happens to have a glass eye.”

  8. Get Your Subjects and Objects in Order
    Nails on a chalkboard. Incessant slurping. Open-mouth chewing. Annoying. Perhaps as annoying as when writers use subjects when they should use objects and objects when they should use subjects. That is annoying. Slurping has nothing on misused subjects and objects. But it wasn’t I who was slurping hot coffee; it was Dakotah. Rather, that is to say, it wasn’t me. All that slurping made everyone turn their heads to look at Dakotah and I. That is, at Dakotah and me. “I” is the subjective form of the first-person pronoun; “me” is the objective form. They are not interchangeable. We have subjects for a reason, and we have objects for a reason. Use them wisely.

    It wasn’t me who was slurping hot coffee; it was Dakotah. And all that slurping made everyone turn their heads to look at Dakotah and me. I nudged her, hoping she would stop with the slurping, but it did neither of us any good. The staring continued.”

  9. Watch Your That and Who
    Comprehension is the ultimate goal of anyone communicating with an audience. So long as your intended audience understands your meaning, it’s all good. But is good good enough? Your writing can be better if only you would correctly use “that” and “who.” Poor “who.” It always gets the short shrift. “That” gets all the attention. “That” refers to things, groups, and, sometimes, people; “who” refers to humans (and “which,” by the way, refers to animals or things). Word choice can make the difference between clarity and precision or obfuscation and confusion. As communicators, it is our job to make our writing as comprehensible as possible, which means that we should write with clarity and precision. You can do it! You can write with clarity and precision. Indeed, writers who do so are better writers than those who don’t.

    “Sentences that are intended for others are better written by those who communicate well.”

  10. Save Capital Letters for Titles and Proper Nouns
    My Nephew got a Bachelor’s of Science in International Relations. That’s not the title of a book. It’s just overkill with capital letters (aka uppercase letters). The he got a job working as a Bookseller, a Barista, and a Bouncer in order to pay off his student loans. Why the emphasis with the capital letters? No reason. Really: No. Reason. Indiscriminate capitalization isn’t clever or emphatic or eye-catching (at least not in a good way). The willy-nilly use of Uppercase Letters and—heaven forbid—ALL CAPS is almost as bad as slurping. Academic degrees, academic subjects or disciplines, professional titles, and common nouns most often take lowercase letters. Formal or official names and proper nouns take Initial Caps. Rather than relying on unnecessary capitalization, use words and phrasing for emphasis.

    “Frankie, associate professor of English, earned a master’s degree in fiction writing before pursuing a PhD in history from University of Blahblahblah. Frankie studied under Professor Emeritus Morgan Williams. Professor Williams wrote the History 701 textbook.”

With a little practice, you can overcome these common grammar mistakes, thus saving your readers from a nails-on-the-chalkboard experience in incomprehension. Good writing can make the difference between comprehension and confusion. Use these tips, and your writing—and your audience—will benefit.

—Kelli

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