Feb 032013
 
 Most Common Grammatical Errors – and How to Fix Them

Honor Clement Hayes: Writer, Femininst, and Mutated Muser

A grammar mistake as “little” as its instead of it’s can stop you from getting published, or change an A paper to a B or even a C.

Here are the most common grammatical errors people make, plus tips on how to fix them. This is a guest post from Honor Clement-Hayes, who is – among many other things – the Women’s Fashion Editor for an online culture magazine called HOWL.

I hadn’t run into Honor until she tweeted me, then emailed me this article. I love her writing style: witty, fun, easy to read, and free of grammatical errors! And she’s a feminist – she even mentions Caitlin Moran in one of her recent posts on her blog, Mutated Musings.

Even if you’re one of those enviable writers who never gets your its and it’s mixed up, you’ll enjoy Honor’s grammar quips and tips…

10 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid if You Want to be a Professional Writer

The English Language is a difficult beast to tie down. Even those rules which we consider mandatory may actually change very quickly, especially with words moving into ever more fleeting media. However, there are a few mistakes which – for now at least – can make you look very silly…




 1) The Errant Apostrophe

Sure, it’s not good if you miss out an apostrophe but it’s often just a typo that you can pick up later. However, an apostrophe in the wrong place clearly shows that you haven’t quite grasped the rules and are in fact a bit of an idiot. Serious offenders: CD’s, the dog wagged it’s tail. CRINGE.

EXAMPLES: 

  • If something owns something else, it gets an apostrophe e.g. ‘The man’s abs were great’.
  • If you are smooshing two words together e.g. ‘it is’ to ‘it’s’ then you use an apostrophe to show you have missed out some letters.
  • Decades, acronyms and plurals in general never use an apostrophe: ‘The 1950s’, ‘MPs’, ‘Dos and don’ts’ etc.
  • ‘Ours’, ‘yours’ and ‘theirs’ don’t need apostrophes because they’re already possessive i.e. ‘Your hat’ is possessive whether you mention the hat or not.

2) Confusing American and English Verb Endings

The verb ending ‘-ise’ comes from the French infinitive ending ‘-iser’ as in ‘spécialiser’. Loads of our language comes from French so in England we ‘specialise’, we don’t ‘specialize’. These later spellings were made up by a comedian by the name of Webster who wrote one of the first American dictionaries and decided it would be fun to just spell stuff differently from the motherland.

The ‘-ise’ verb ending is argued over between the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries but that’s not actually what matters. An English audience strongly associates ‘-ize’ with American spelling, so make sure you know who you’re writing for. These are a pain in the bum but they’re vital and the only way to get them right is to learn or check.

EXAMPLES:

  • ‘Emphasise’ vs. ‘emphasize’.
  • ‘Practice’ in English: ‘I practise (verb) at band practice (noun)’.
  •  We also hold a ‘licence’ not a ‘license’ but that does make us ‘licensed’.

For more tips on fixing grammatical errors, read How to Write Better Sentences.

3) Boring Punctuation

Believe it or not, there are alternatives to the comma. In most copy, the shorter the sentence, the better it generally is. Bear in mind that people are often scanning the copy and anything that adds easily identified tone of voice is a winner.

EXAMPLES:

  • Em dashes are used for parenthetical or explanatory parts of a sentence. Basically, you should use these wherever you would think of using brackets, simply because it looks more professional e.g. ‘The flange socket – used for easing the sump transition – is one of the most important parts of your transolomiser’. This allows you to give extra information in a sentence but also break it up a bit so it doesn’t look so bloody long.
  • The colon (herr herr) introduces a list but can also be a great way of introducing a big statement e.g. ‘We have just one aim: to be the best.’
  • Short sentences are so effective, mainly because they stand out from other copy and draw the eye to something important. They can emphasise a mission statement or promise really well because it’s so pared down that it sounds more like the truth, with no flowery language e.g. ‘Looking for a smartphone that’s actually smart? This is it.’
  • Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ is something we’re told never to do at school because they’re conjunctions (joining words). However, they can be used to convey a conversational tone or emphasise a point e.g. ‘We’re well known for being great at MOTs. But that’s not all: we also…’ or ‘Many years ago we set out to be the best. And that’s exactly what we’ve done’.
  • The semi-colon does a similar job to the colon but it’s less bold and brash. It gives the feeling of joining two sentences without a conjunction like ‘because’ e.g. ‘Brand loyalty isn’t something you can buy; it’s something you earn’.

4) Sticking to Old Rules

There are some archaic words and rules that aren’t really right to use in web or new media copy because it’s supposed to be quick and cool and up-to-date. It’s the 21st century yo.

EXAMPLES:

  • ‘Dreamt’. This is completely right in English but is a very old form of the past participle. You should probably use ‘-ed’ just because it’s more standard.
  • ‘Whilst’. Again, it’s correct but don’t let any silly rules for when to use this confuse you. It’s just the old form of the conjunction ‘while’ and it’s generally viewed as old fashioned and ‘posh’ so best not to use it. That goes for ‘amongst’ as well.
  • ‘An hotel’ and ‘an historic account’ are 100% correct because of an ancient rule about French silent ‘h’s, but if you’re writing web copy it sticks out a bit and makes you look like a boorish pedant, so go with what sounds right in your head.
  • ‘Splitting the infinitive’ is probably something you were told not to do on pain of death at school but there’s really no reason not to do so if you want to. The only reason that exists is because the grammar rules governing LATIN were applied to English when classical languages were extremely fashionable. As no one gives two shits about Latin now, there’s no reason to care about a rule that’s hundreds of years out of date.

5) The Passive Voice

Just don’t. Ever. The passive voice makes you sound like a stuck up, stuffy old douchebag.

EXAMPLES:

  • ‘This service was created’ > ‘We created this service’
  • ‘It is advisable to…’ > ‘We advise you to…’

6) Using Nouns Instead of Verbs

When you stop doing this, you immediately strip down your writing and make it much more punchy and effective. Think about this sentence ‘We’re performing an investigation (verb used as noun) into big company tax evasion’. That’s pretty long and boring, because the most important verb, ‘investigate’, has been used as a THING not an ACTION. Now, ‘We’re investigating big company tax evasion’ uses fewer words, gets the point across and doesn’t pansy about trying to dress anything up as something else.

EXAMPLES:

  • ‘You can submit your application for…’ > ‘You can apply for…’
  • ‘We made changes to our services’ > ‘We changed our services’

7) Disagreeable Sentences

If you start a sentence with ‘These things…’ everything else pertaining to those things should be plural.

  • ‘These things ARE plural and INVOLVE plurals’

If you present ‘a range’ of things, it needs to range FROM something TO something.

  • ‘We provide services ranging FROM vehicle servicing, MOTs and diagnostics TO wheel alignment and breakdown cover.’

When you start your sentence with ‘Why not…’ the sentence has to end in a question mark.

  • ‘Why not give us a call to find out how we can help you learn more about tightrope walking?’

For more tips on writing “agreeable” sentences, read 51 Over-Used Adverbs, Nouns, and Clichés in Writing.

8) Using ‘That’ Instead of ‘Who’

A ‘that’ is a thing. A ‘who’ is a person.

EXAMPLES:

  • ‘It was the postman who brought the letters’.
  • ‘I like yogurt that tastes like fruit’.

BUT if you pluralise…

  • ‘I like yoghurts which taste like fruit’.

This is another rule that has exceptions, but it’s good to try to be at least consistent in your writing.

9) Writing ‘To try and do…’

If you’re trying to make a bird bath, you wouldn’t say ‘I’m going to try. Then after that I’m going to make a birdbath.’ But if you say ‘I’m going to try and make a birdbath’ then you ARE actually saying that!

EXAMPLES:

  • ‘I want to try and write perfectly’ > ‘I want to try to write perfectly’.
  • ‘I went and got a chocolate bar’ > ‘I went to get a chocolate bar’.

10) The Biggest Mistake: Not Checking Your Grammar

No five ways about it – the biggest error is failing to proofread your own work. It’s fine to make mistakes as long as you pick them up, feel stupid, and then learn from them!

If you find it hard to read your own work through for errors, at the very least spellcheck. This won’t pick up everything, but will screen your writing for silly typos.

It can really help to get someone else to read your work, or you could even print it out and ‘mark’ it with a red pen. Try doing something else for a while, then reading it when the subject has been erased from your thoughts for a couple of hours. Anything that changes the situation and makes you see your words in a new way.

The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need A One-Stop Source for Every Writing AssignmentAre there any grammar errors that seriously annoy you? Funnily enough, writers always seem to disagree on what’s OK and what isn’t! The rule seems to be: ‘What I’m doing is OK, what you’re doing is not’… so what am I wrong about?

Note from Laurie: If you struggle with grammatical errors, get The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment. Put it on your desk, next to your dictionary and thesaurus…or on your kindle, next to your Writer’s Market!

About the author: Honor Clement-Hayes is a non-prescriptivist grammar enthusiast who lives to celebrate the rules of the English language as “many, varied, ever-changing and eternal” to quote Severus Snape. She also writes about glittery shoes and plumbing, among myriad other things. She loves blogging for GKBC who help aspiring bloggers improve writing skills and get published online.

laurie pawlik kienlenI'm Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen (but I wish my name was Rosie Frost!). I'm a bookworm, travel bug, flute player, writer. My husband and I live in Vancouver, Canada with our cat and dogs.

Are you happy? My Grade 10 Social Studies teacher, Mr Merritt, always used to ask me that. And I am happy - despite a difficult childhood (schizophrenic mother, no father, foster homes), infertility, an eating disorder, and a chronic illness. The source of my peace and joy is God; I'm a Christian.

How is your life unfolding - what do you need? I welcome your big and little comments below, about big or little things. I can't give you advice, but writing can give you clarity and insight.

In peace and passion.... Laurie

  44 Responses to “10 Most Common Grammatical Errors – and How to Fix Them”

  1. I have real OCD where grammar’s concerned but have actually learned something above (the yoghurts WHICH). Perhaps I’ll have to get a hold of that book before rolling my eyes at errant apostrophes in future :-)
    Chrissie x

  2. I especially liked numbers 4 and 5, and learned a lot about my own verbosity in number 6.

  3. Great content, Honor. Ezinearticle is the most difficult place to get articles published just because of such small mistakes.

  4. I like these tips because they are very useful to write English correctly. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks for the great article. My Mom is an English major and I grew up learning proper grammar. I find myself correcting my friends a lot. Now, I have some more ammo but I have to watch out, they don’t like it very much.

  6. Hi Maxmom,

    If your dog is the main protagonist and people are supposed to emote with him as a character of course he’s a ‘who’! If a robot has a character he’s a ‘who’ not a ‘that’ and a dog is a lot closer to most readers’ hearts than a robot… I’d say you were right – it would have been a strange and emotionally detached story if not!

    It’s a very good point and yet again the answer seems to be: ‘Do what FEELS right’.

  7. Hi there Honor,
    Thank you for this interesting article.
    The debate about when to use ‘who’ or ‘that’ was one that turned contentious during the editing of my book, ‘Maxdog’. Although the rules are clear, I insisted on using ‘who’ in reference to the main protagonist in the book, i.e. my dog, Max.
    The reason: this book was aimed at animal lovers who sometimes experience their animals as almost human. Indeed, dog and cat-bloggers around the world often use ‘who’ when referring to their animals. The rule may be broken, but it just ‘fits’.
    I was interested in your opinion about this. By way of example, this is the first sentence in my book:
    “Looking back, perhaps the strangest thing about this
    dog who was to touch my life so deeply, was the fact that I
    didn’t want him in the first place!”
    :)

  8. Thanks Javier, I’m really glad you found it useful!

  9. Really, really amazing post. As a non-native English speaker this is a great source of information. Em dashes are not used that way in Spanish, but I actually find it really useful.

  10. Hi the apostophe is difficult I always have to give it a second check. Support your view of short sentances. They work because they are impactful. Cheers

  11. HI Honor, thanks for sharing, and your article is useful to me because English is not my primary language.

  12. Mike – that’s so funny, I’m exactly the same! Every time I write a piece about grammar or spelling I’m terrified I’ll slip up and look like a fool. I could always claim it’s a test I suppose…

  13. I’ve made these mistakes in the past when writing anything. Every tip you wrote on, is a mistake I’ve made. I’m even hesitant to write this comment for fear of doing what I just learned not to!

  14. Carl – Write the way you have been taught RE. British vs American English. I would never be irritated by someone writing to me in such a fashion, so long as the spelling and grammar is consistent.

    However, if I were asked to write for an American publication I would ask beforehand whether they needed me to Americanise my copy.

  15. Layla – now you have it in your head you’ll probably never do it again! I catch myself ALL. THE. TIME.

  16. Hi Nolan,

    I would say that you’re not going to get booed out of town for writing ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ but I do think that things like this can snag against some readers’ minds as they’re reading – which is definitely to be avoided!

    Our glorious language is so volatile that I wouldn’t dare say something like this is ‘wrong’, it’s more of a feeling for me. As I said in my article, the really important thing is consistency, so decide what is right for you and stick to it.

    Thanks for commenting!

  17. This is essentially a list of my pet peeves :).

  18. Is writing “who” instead of “that” really a matter of right or wrong? To me it just feels like more of a stylistic difference…

  19. I never paid attention to #9. I’m going to have to be really vigilant about checking myself because I have no idea if I do this or not, but I have seen it many many times.

  20. Yes, absolutely right !! grammatical mistakes make the things change..
    And etc:-
    Etc. is short for the Latin et cetera which means literally “and so forth.” Therefore, when you say “and etc.” you’re really saying “and and so forth.” This is clearly redundant. Just say “etc” (or preferably “et cetera”). (It may help you to remember that “etc” was once abbreviated &c.)

  21. Im swedish. Are british people (for example) annoyed by international people writing to them with the american way of spelling? I mean: do you care?

  22. Thanks Lauren! It’s always nice to know that what you’ve written is actually USEFUL rather than just words spat out into the ether…

  23. I agree that breaking grammatical rules can make writing very fresh and interesting. (Scratch the very!).

    Number 9 is one of my biggest pet peeves. It is too wordy, and the best writers are concise.

    One of my favourite things about blogging is that an article that was written months or years ago can be just as popular as one written yesterday :-)

  24. As a content writer for a marketing company I have favorit-ed this post to my toolbar for handy access. Yay! I also like how you include that it is OK in the age of copywriting to break a few rules to make copy sounds fresh and conversational.

    Hey! Thanks!

  25. Sometimes I just make words up if I’m unsatisfied with the tools I have: I’m not in any way tied by the religion of grammar or ‘proper’ English. Rules are made to be broken – but it helps to know them first!

    Lovely hearing from so many people.

  26. I like to add some of my own personality whenever I write an article. So I tend to use a few slang words that are not in the Oxford Dictionary.I often read blog posts where the grammar is far from perfect,but that does not put me of visiting the web-site again.

  27. Hi Obie,

    I currently write websites for hibu and am the Women’s Fashion Editor for HOWL Magazine. I also blog with GKBC, a writing collective who give ace support to writers who need feedback on their work.

    I went to uni to study English Language but left in my second year – which was the best thing I ever did because it really focused me on my life goals. I now do what I want to do for the rest of my life: copywriting.

    Thanks for your interest!

  28. While english is my second language i alwys try to improve,for example watching tv shows or stand up comedy on Youtube.Why not have some fun while learning?

  29. Great grammar round-up, Honor and Laurie! I have a question for Honor: what are your writing goals? Are you writing a book, or making money freelance writing? Also, do you have a degree in Journalism or English?

  30. The fewer people care about these standards, the more work there is for good writers!

  31. Oh, never for one minute meant it isn’t important, I was raising the question of how you make others care to the same level as those whose job it is to write to the highest standard.

  32. I think they do matter: for a language like English that embraces new words and styles constantly, there have to be a few basic standards to which we keep. I’m mainly concerned with online copy and it’s a medium that can slip so easily into trash. Apostrophes in particular will always matter, whether you’re writing a letter to your mam or blogging about aerospace!

  33. English is not my first language, But I am learning English grammar by observing the way people talk in English.

  34. These mistakes DO matter, I think. I bet they drive editors crazy. One of the reasons I stopped accepting guest posts is that I got sick and tired of fixing your and you’re, and those kinds of mistakes. Worse were the run-on sentences and unedited writing. As a writer, I don’t want to edit other people’s careless writing – that’s the last thing I want to do.

    Which is why I was super excited to post Honor’s article — it didn’t need editing! :-)

  35. Thing is, Honor, these errors come up again and again because this stuff is no longer deemed important by the majority. But it keeps the editors of this world in work. I think the word ‘grammar’ itself should be ditched – how about ‘writing so that people can understand what you are saying without tripping over your mistakes’? That needs editing.

  36. A useful reminder about the common mistakes we need to avoid.

    Thanks a lot!

  37. Great grammar round-up, Honor and Laurie!

    I especially liked numbers 4 and 5, and learned a lot about my own verbosity in number 6.

    This was fun, different from some of the dryer grammar-Nazi posts I’ve seen elsewhere.

    My favorite, and final laugh of the evening: “As no one gives two shits about Latin now, there’s no reason…” Perfect! I’d never thought about the split infinitive rule that way before.

    My thanks to both of you, ladies!

    ~Jim

  38. Cheers for getting involved guys, great comments. Let’s wipe out those silly mistakes one wonky apostrophe at a time!

  39. Quick tip on ise/ize for those who write for both sides of the Atlantic:

    1) In the UK, ise will always be correct but some words can also be ize. Stick to ise and you don’t have to worry.

    2) In the US, each word is either ise or ize, but never both. You’ll need to learn them individually.

  40. PS I love this picture of Honor!! :-)

  41. I’m especially frustrated because I’m in grad school, and my professor’s syllabus – particularly her instructions on how to write an essay – are full of grammar mistakes and typos.

    Never underestimate the importance of its versus it’s!!!

  42. Six months landline rental “FOR FREE” really bugs me. It’s either “free” or “for nothing”.
    Thanks Honor x

  43. Arghh the “your” and “you’re” problem is the most common problem ever. I can’t understand how people find it so hard to distinguish between those two.. :)

  44. My pet peeve is the refusal to distinguish between “your” and “you’re”

    Great read, Heather!

    Thanks, Laurie!

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