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.
- 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.
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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.
- ‘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.
- 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.
- ‘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.
- ‘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.
- ‘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.
- ‘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!
- ‘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.
Are 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.
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