Clear written communication is important for everyone, no matter what college or career path you choose. Mistakes with punctuation, spelling and grammar could lower school grades and limit career growth. Exceptional writing skills will carry you through life, opening doors and accurately conveying your thoughts, feelings and knowledge to others.
Although we all know the “I” before “E” except after “C,” rule, most students of higher learning, as well as many adults, don’t know the following basic spelling rules:
Words Ending with E or Y:
- When adding a suffix that starts with a vowel, such as “ing,” to a word ending in “E,” drop the “E,” as in rope to roping.
- When adding an ending to a “Y” word with a consonant before “Y,” change it to “I,” as in carry to carried.
- When ending with a vowel and “Y,” most words can remain the same when adding “ed” or “ing,” such as stay, to stayed or staying.
Q and X:
- The letter “Q” is always followed by “U,” as in queen
- “S” never comes directly after “X” without adding an “E,” as in fox to foxes
- The trouble with English spelling rules is that there is always an exception. For this reason, always look up a word in a dictionary
- Spellcheckers don’t always find mistakes in words like, “their,” “they’re” and “there” or “your” and “you’re”
- One way to illustrate this disparity is with the sound, “sh,” which is found in, but not limited to:
Show, Ocean, National, Sugar, Mansion, Passion, Fuchsia, Suspicious.
Although most students in college or high school know the basic grammar rules, these are the ones they break the most:
Passive Vs. Active Voice: Make the subject of the sentence carry out the action instead of being the subject that the action happens to:
- Wrong: My dinner was eaten.
- Right: I ate my dinner.
- If you can add “by zombies” at the end, it’s passive voice!
Comparisons: It is only possible to compare things that are the same:
- Wrong: The laws in America are more lenient than England
- Right: The laws in America are more lenient than the laws in England
Misplaced Modifiers: These are descriptive words or phrases that need to be beside the word they modify to avoid confusion
- Wrong: He served hotdogs to his guests from the grill.
- Right: He served hotdogs from the grill to his guests.
- Who or what is from the grill? The guests or the hotdogs?
Subject-Verb Agreement: Keeping tenses straight will help your subject and verb agree:
- Wrong: Each of the women in the class were nurses.
- Right: Each of the women in the class was a nurse.
Parallel Construction: Two or more concepts in one sentence that are parallel should be the same in grammatical style:
- Wrong: To provide farming tools to the village is like building their future.
- Right: Providing farming tools to the village is like building their future.
Pronouns: Should agree with and refer directly to a noun whether it is singular or plural:
- Wrong: My English professor talks loud, but they also talk way too fast.
- Right: My English professor talks loud, but he also talks way too fast.
- Avoid confusion by separating introductory and independent clauses and words from the rest of a sentence, making them easier to comprehend.
- Separate lists of three to four items, free modifiers, quotations and phrases from the rest of a sentence, with the exception of clauses that begin with the word, “that”.
Colons and Semicolons:
- If the first part of a sentence can stand by itself, use in the following: research papers, essays and formal letters.
- If you use a semicolon; whatever follows must be capable of standing alone
- Indicate possessive nouns, such as Jean’s bike
- Replace missing letters in contractions, like “He’s funny.”
- When a plural word ends in “S,” put the apostrophe after the “S,” as in the Smiths’ house or bananas’ peels
- Never use apostrophes to indicate plurals: “list of tasks” is not “list of task’s” or “choice of sodas” is not “choice of soda’s”
- Show quotes or reference terms, such as:
- “I lost my tooth,” said the child.
- The term “astronomy” means the study of stars.
- Require commas to introduce quotes, “like this.”
- Uppercase the first word in a full quotation, such as, “Life is short.”
Dashes and Hyphens:
- Em-dashes are longer and more casual in use than the shorter en-dash
- En-dashes show ranges of numbers or time and reads as “to” or “through,” like chapters 3-8 or from May-September
- Use both sparingly and only when a comma can’t do the job
- To join words like eco-friendly or time-sensitive, use a hyphen
- Before using one for the first time in a piece, write out the full word with the acronym in parenthesis, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); thereafter, just use the letters, as in FBI
English spelling, grammar and punctuation is difficult to master, because it is in constant flux as usage changes and the language evolves. Yet practice makes it easier. Following these simple rules will help your written communication be easier to read and your message clearer.
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15 Common Grammar Mistakes That Kill Your Writing Credibility
I love to write, but I’m not so crazy about grammar.
Learning about words that dangle, split, and get misplaced isn’t my idea of fun.
If you’re an author, particularly a self-published author, you need to do everything possible to win your readers’ hearts and minds. When they are distracted by grammatical errors or confused by the meaning of a sentence, they aren’t likely to buy your next book — or finish the one they are reading.
However, as an English major in college, I had it drilled into my head that poor grammar revealed laziness and a lack of respect for the reader. It’s the literary form of bad manners and exposes the writer as someone who isn’t serious about the craft.
As tedious as grammar may be to those of us who just want to write, it is well-worth a few minutes of your time to refresh the basics and make sure you don’t fall into one of the problematic grammar traps.
Here are 15 common grammar mistakes that can kill your credibility as a writer:
1. Subject-Verb Agreement Errors
The subject and verb of a sentence must agree with one another in number whether they are singular or plural. If the subject of the sentence is singular, its verb must also be singular; and if the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural.
Incorrect: An important part of my life have been the people who stood by me.
Correct: An important part of my life has been the people who stood by me.
Incorrect: The two best things about the party was the food and the music.Correct: The two best things about the party were the food and the music.
2. Sentence Fragments
Sentence fragments are incomplete sentences that don’t have one independent clause. A fragment may lack a subject, a complete verb, or both. Sometimes fragments depend on the proceeding sentence to give it meaning.
Incorrect: He gave his mother an extravagant gift after the argument. In spite of everything.
Correct: In spite of everything, he gave his mother an extravagant gift after the argument.
Incorrect: The boys snuck home late that night. Then waited for the consequences.
Correct: The boys snuck home late that night, then waited for the consequences.
3. Missing Comma After Introductory Element
A comma should be used after an introductory word, phrase, or clause. This gives the reader a slight pause after an introductory element and often can help avoid confusion.
Incorrect: In case you haven’t noticed my real name doesn’t appear in the article.
Correct: In case you haven’t noticed, my real name doesn’t appear in the article.
Incorrect: Before she had time to think about it Sharon jumped into the icy pool.
Correct: Before she had time to think about it, Sharon jumped into the icy pool.
4. Misusing The Apostrophe With “Its”
You use an apostrophe with it’s only when the word means it is or it has. Without the apostrophe, its means belonging to it.
Incorrect: I don’t believe its finally Friday.
Correct: I don’t believe it’s (it is) finally Friday.
Incorrect: The cat was licking it’s tail.
Correct: The cat was licking its tail.
5. No Comma In A Compound Sentence
A comma separates two or more independent clauses in a compound sentence separated by a conjunction. The comma goes after the first clause and before the coordinating conjunction that separates the clauses.
Incorrect: The man jumped into a black sedan and he drove away before being noticed.
Correct: The man jumped into a black sedan, and he drove away before being noticed.
Incorrect: She was beautiful and she was happy and she was full of life.
Correct: She was beautiful, and she was happy, and she was full of life.
6. Misplaced Or Dangling Modifier
A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is improperly separated from the word it modifies or describes. Sentences with this error can sound awkward, ridiculous, or confusing. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.
Incorrect: While walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a sparkly girl’s bracelet.
Correct: While walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a girl’s sparkly bracelet.
Incorrect: After finally setting off on the trail, the morning felt more exciting.
Correct: After finally setting off on the trail, he felt the morning was more exciting.
7. Vague Pronoun Reference
A pronoun can replace a noun, and its antecedent should be the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. A vague pronoun reference (including words such as it, that, this, and which) can leave the reader confused about what or to whom the pronoun refers.
Incorrect: When Jonathan finally found his dog, he was so happy. (The dog or Jonathan?)
Correct: Jonathan was so happy when he finally found his dog.
Incorrect: Don felt a lot of anger and bitterness as a result of Marie’s decision. This is what ended everything. (What ended everything? Don’s anger and bitterness or Marie’s decision?)
Correct: Don felt a lot of anger and bitterness as a result of Marie’s decision. Her choice ended everything.
8. Wrong Word Usage
There are a variety of words and phrases that are commonly confused and misused in sentences. Using them incorrectly can change the meaning of the sentence or simply reflect carelessness on the writer’s part. There are hundreds of these commonly confused words, so when in doubt, always check the definition and correct spelling of the word.
Read Related: The Oxford Comma
Incorrect: She excepted his offer to drive her home.
Correct: She accepted his offer to drive her home.
Incorrect: It was a breathe of fresh air to meet someone so genuine.
Correct: It was a breath of fresh air to meet someone so genuine.
9. Run-On Sentence
A run-on sentence occurs when you connect two main clauses with no punctuation.
Incorrect: She tried to sneak out of the house her mother saw her leaving.
Correct: She tried to sneak out of the house, but her mother saw her leaving.
Incorrect: He ran through the field as fast as he could all the while rain was soaking him to the bone.
Correct: He ran through the field as fast as he could. All the while rain was soaking him to the bone.
10. Superfluous Commas
It’s common writing mistake to throw commas around liberally when they aren’t necessary. There are dozens of examples of this error, but here are a few common mistakes.
Incorrect: The woman never went into the city, because she didn’t feel comfortable driving in traffic.
Correct: The woman never went into the city because she didn’t feel comfortable driving in traffic.
Incorrect: He wants to get a degree in engineering, or medicine.
Correct: He wants to get a degree in engineering or medicine.
Incorrect: Sam knew immediately, what was going to happen next.
Correct: Same knew immediately what was going to happen next.
Incorrect: Old cars, that have been left in a junkyard, are an eyesore.
Correct: Old cars that have been left in a junkyard are an eyesore.
Incorrect: The bouquet of flowers on the table, belongs to Mary.
Correct: The bouquet of flowers on the table belongs to Mary.
11. Lack Of Parallel Structure
Faulty parallelism occurs when two or more parts of a sentence are similar in meaning but not parallel (or grammatically similar) in form. It often occurs with paired constructions and items in a series.
Incorrect: He wanted to learn more about careers in programming, engineering, biochemist, and research scientist.
Correct: He wanted to learn more about careers in programming, engineering, biochemistry, and research science.
Incorrect: The key directives of his boss were clear:
- Meet monthly sales quotas.
- Aggressive marketing techniques.
- Reporting in every day.
Correct: The key directives of his boss were clear:
- Meet monthly sales goals.
- Practice aggressive marketing techniques.
- Report in every day.
12. Sentence Sprawl
A sentence can become a burden to read when there are too many equally weighted phrases.
Incorrect: Jason was planning to attend his friend’s wedding on June 30, but at the last minute he found out he had jury duty, so he couldn’t attend the wedding, and he felt really guilty about it.
Correct: Unexpectedly Jason was called for jury duty and couldn’t attend his friend’s June 30 wedding. He felt guilty about missing it.
13. Comma Splice
A comma splice occurs when two separate sentences are joined with a comma rather than a period or semicolon. Writers often create comma splices when using transitional words, such as however, therefore, moreover, nevertheless, or furthermore.
Incorrect: My intention was to take her out to dinner, however I decided not to invite her after all.
Correct: My intention was to take her out to dinner; however, I decided not to invite her after all.
Incorrect: My sisters and I love to go shopping, we then have lunch together when we’re done.
Correct: My sisters and I love to go shopping. We then have lunch together when we’re done.
14. Colon Mistakes
A colon is used after a complete sentence to introduce a word, phrase, clause, list, or quotation. The colon signals that what follows proves or explains the sentence preceding the colon.
Incorrect: People move to Florida for: the warmer weather, the beach, and the theme parks.
Correct: People move to Florida for three reasons: the warmer weather, the beach, and the theme parks.
15. Split Infinitives
An infinitive is the word “to” with a verb. A split infinitive separates the word “to” and the verb with another word (often an adverb). There are no grammar rules that prohibit split infinitives, but many experts disapprove of them. If the sentence sounds awkward by correcting the split, our rule of thumb is to go with what makes the most sense in the context of your writing and for the ease of reading. (For example, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” would sound awkward and less powerful as, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”)
Incorrect: She tried to quickly finish the book before she had to leave.
Correct: She tried to finish the book quickly before she had to leave.
Incorrect: He wanted to gradually improve his strength by increasing the weight.
Correct: He wanted to improve his strength gradually by increasing the weight.
As a serious author, you want to put your best foot forward with your writing. There are times and reasons to break some of the rules of grammar, but it’s wiser to break them knowing what they are and why you should stray.
Whenever you’re in doubt about a rule, take a brief moment to look it up. You’ll save yourself some embarrassment, and you’ll show your readers that you respect language and revere the art of writing well.