There are two kinds of people in the world: those who care deeply about grammar, and those who are wrong. I kid (but not really). If you’re reading this, you’re at least mildly interested and concerned about it. Are you a grammar Nazi, silently or not-so-silently correcting and judging people on their grammar skills and lack thereof? Or are you acutely aware of your own grammatical shortcomings? Do writing mistakes creep into your own prose?
Strong writing skills should be the goal for everyone, regardless of career, field, or industry. The ability to clearly and correctly express yourself with the written word is an asset worth more than all the tea in China (I just committed a writing error there, did you catch it?).
English is a language fraught with weird spelling, tricky grammar rules, and exceptions to virtually every one of them. It can take a lifetime to master it, and truthfully, most of us will never quite get there. But that’s okay.
Sadly, grammar is not really taught in schools anymore, and the proliferation of instant messaging apps has led to a disregard for it most of the time. Just read the average high school student’s texts to see what I mean. It looks like a new language.
Good spelling and grammar may not be considered super sexy, but it can be. An individual able to speak and write properly assumes an air of authority and sophistication, and that can be very, very attractive. They also seem more intelligent, professional, and suave. You don’t have to take it to Frasier Crane levels, either (because always stressing proper enunciation and favouring fancy words can get annoying very quickly). All you need do is eliminate the most common mistakes from your writing.
How many of these have you committed lately?
Commonly Misused Expressions and Words
There are a number of common expressions that the majority of us use and say incorrectly. Sometimes the error is understandable, and sometimes it’s not. For example:
- For all intensive purposes (it’s actually “for all intents and purposes”)
- I could care less (no, you couldn’t care less…otherwise, you’re saying that you do care a little)
- On accident (you can only do something on purpose or by accident)
- Irregardless (regardless by definition means without regard, so placing ir- in front makes it a double negative)
- Nip it in the butt (unless you’re biting something in the ass, you’re trying to say “nip it in the bud”)
- Mother-in-laws or brother-in-laws (if there are more than one, you should be pluralizing the noun – mother or brother – and not the modifier, making mothers-in-law and brothers-in-law are correct)
These can be tricky for English language learners and native speakers. Homophones are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have very different meanings. A few of the usual suspects include:
- there (location), their (third-person plural possessive), and they’re (contraction of they are). This is hands-down the most frequent offender.
- two (number), too (as well), and to (preposition)
- affect (verb) and effect (noun)
- accept (verb – believe, recognize, consent to receive) and except (preposition or conjunction)
- compliment (praise or admiration) and complement (enhance or improve)
- principal (first in order of importance; head of a school) and principle (fundamental truth or proposition)
There are many, many more. The Common Homophones List includes many of the ones you’ll encounter most often. As with misused expressions, you just have to familiarize yourself with them, and then be vigilant in your writing.
A simple but common little error. A sentence subject and verb must agree in number (singular or plural) and person (1st, 2nd, 3rd). So instead of “she walk” – which is a 3rd-person singular subject – it should be “she walks”.
This one is a personal pet peeve. An apostrophe is a very common punctuation mark in English. Unfortunately, many people use it incorrectly. An apostrophe is typically used for one of two reasons:
- To indicate possession. Add an apostrophe-s to the end of nouns to show that the object belongs to them. David’s bike. Susan’s car. If the noun ends in -s, you can choose to add either apostrophe-s, or just the apostrophe. It’s a matter of personal style, as both are grammatically correct. The Jones’s house, or the Jones’ house.
- To indicate a contraction. When words like can not and we have are combined, the apostrophe replaces an omitted letter(s). Can not = can’t. We have = we’ve.
An apostrophe is rarely if ever used to indicate plurality. Moving from singular to plural is accomplished with the addition of either -s or -es. Not ‘s. There are some that argue it should be used in instances involving letters and numbers, like 1980’s or ABC’s. But just as many suggest simply adding the s – 1980s and ABCs. Again, it’s a matter of style.
A fragment is an incomplete sentence, either separated from an independent clause, or lacking a subject or predicate. For example: Although it was done on Wednesday. This is a fragment because we don’t know what was done on Wednesday, or what the result was. It needs more.
Instead of: The inevitable arrival of snow. (what about the arrival of snow?)
Write: The arrival of snow is inevitable. (subject – the arrival of snow – and predicate – is inevitable – are both present)
Even educated writers struggle with semicolons. They’re used to separate two independent clauses that are related, often before transitional words like however, or to separate detailed items in a list.
Instead of: Many distinguished guests attended, including Ernest Hemingway, author of A Farewell to Arms, Charlie Chaplin, silent movie star, and Kurt Cobain, beloved grunge rocker.
Write: Many distinguished guests attended, including Ernest Hemingway, author of A Farewell to Arms; Charlie Chaplin, silent movie star; and Kurt Cobain, beloved grunge rocker.
Semicolons are not used very frequently in modern writing, but when you do use them, make sure it’s the correct way.
Colons are most often used after a complete sentence to introduce a word, clause, list, quotation, or phrase that proves or explains the previous sentence.
Instead of: There are two types of people in the world, those who love Star Wars, and those who are wrong.
Write: There are two types of people in the world: those who love Star Wars, and those who are wrong.
Variety is the spice of life, and that’s true for your writing, too. Sentence variety concerns the length and types of sentences you use. If you always write the same length and type (statement, command, question), your writing sounds monotone and boring.
We like to eat out. We go to restaurants. We enjoy Italian food. We like Chinese food, too. It’s not our favourite, though. Our favourite in Thai. We order takeout sometimes.
Boring. Stiff. Monotonous. Instead, mix up the length and type of sentences to breathe some life into it.
We like to eat out. Do you? We enjoy both Italian and Chinese food, although they’re not our favourites. Thai. Thai is our number one choice. Sometimes we’ll order takeout, but we prefer to go to restaurants. What’s your favourite place to eat in the city?
Short sentences. Longer sentences. Compound sentences. Statements. Questions. Mix it up.
A modifier changes or describes another word. It should be next to the thing it modifies to avoid confusion.
Instead of: Dylan ate pizza wearing a tux (the pizza was wearing a tuxedo?)
Write: While wearing his tux, Dylan ate pizza.
A good mix of sentence length is important for your writing, but it can easily become too much. A run-on sentence is two or more independent clauses joined without the necessary punctuation or conjunction.
Instead of: It was minus 38 degrees last Wednesday and my car froze overnight my cat was afraid to go out.
Write: It was minus 38 degrees last Wednesday, and my car froze overnight. My cat was afraid to go out (added the necessary comma, and separated the cat sentence. Remember one sentence – compound or otherwise – one idea).
A list or comparison should use the same grammatical pattern for both clarity and elegance. When something breaks the pattern, it may not be a grammar mistake in the strictest sense of the word, but it is jarring and takes away from the overall effect and rhythm.
Instead of: I enjoy watching movies, reading historical novels, and I write short stories in my spare time (the first two verbs use the -ing construction, while the third deviates).
Write: I enjoy watching movies, reading historical novels, and writing short stories in my spare time.
Mistakes happen. To err is human, and that’s doubly true when it comes to writing in English. A few simple reminders, a mistake checklist to use when polishing, and you should be able to reduce the most common.
And while it’s much better to learn, recognize, and fix common mistakes on your own (because once you know the rules, you can break them for style and effect), there are several apps and online services that can check for you. Slick Write, Hemingway, and Grammarly are three excellent options that check for spelling and common grammar issues. Use them after you’ve done your own corrections and revision.
What’s your Achilles heel when it comes to writing? Is there one mistake you keep making over and over again? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.