The 15 Grammar Mistakes You Might Still Be Making

Here’s the thing. 

You might be a great writer, but being a great writer and being a great editor are two different things. Very often, the kind of detail-oriented, rules-following mind that helps somebody master the details of grammar is the opposite of the creative, flexible mind that makes it possible to spin great plots, characters, and twists. 

This is especially true if you were a gifted writer early in life. Many kids wrote well enough instinctively that they were never formally taught basic grammar, and didn’t learn some things until their first foray into a second language. 

Either way, most writers without the benefit of a traditional publishing deal (with its multiple editors and proofreaders as an integral part of their team) have a couple grammar foibles they need to look out for. Here are the 15 my close editor friends tell me their clients make far too often, and what you should do instead. 

1. Abusing Apostrophes

It’s cords were frayed, and sparks flew.

I can’t believe its powerful enough to do that. 

We get why people miss this one, since it breaks the regular rule. Normally, if you want to show that somebody or something owns a thing, you put an apostrophe and an s after the noun representing that thing. If Carl has a rocket launcher, we say Carl’s rocket launcher. If a cow is born with an extra leg, we say the cow’s fifth leg. 

But we don’t do that with the pronoun. If we show something belongs to it, we add the s without the apostrophe. Its rocket launcher was loaded and ready to go. Its fifth leg kicked farther than the other four. It with an apostrophe and s is used exclusively to abbreviate “it is”.

We’re not claiming this makes any sense. We’re just saying it’s so.

The Right Way

Its cords were frayed, and sparks flew.

I can’t believe it’s powerful enough to do that. 

2. Adjectives Out of Order

The wooden, blue, tall boat sailed into the Japanese thin bay. 

The pink, old, messy room was round and small.

You probably weren’t taught this in school, but the reason those sentences felt weird to you is that the adjectives were out of order. They go in a specific order according to what the adjective is about, as follows: opinion of describer, size, physical qualities, shape, age, color, origin, material, purpose, other. 

If you go in that order, it reads right. If you go out of order, it reads wrong. Most of the time, you should follow this rule. You can break it if you intentionally want to make the sentence jarring, or in dialogue to indicate the speaker hasn’t mastered the language. But if you feel like a sentence with a string of adjectives is off, look to this. 

Doing it right

The tall, blue, wooden boat sailed into the thin Japanese bay.

The messy, old, pink room was small and round. 

3. Adverb Overuse

“I dropped my toothpaste,” Tom said, crestfallen.

I ran quickly, like my life depended on it. 

Stephen King says “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” As you remember from school, an adverb modifies a verb the way an adjective modifies a noun. In theory, they’re an important part of communication. In practice, most of the time you can eliminate the adverb by choosing a more powerful verb, or otherwise crafting a more compelling and descriptive sentence. 

When you hear about showing instead of telling, adverb overuse is one of the most common culprits. Don’t tell us what the verb was like, show us a more interesting verb. 

Doing it right

“Darn, I dropped my toothpaste,” Tom moaned.

I sprinted like my life depended on it. 

4. Comma Splice

I wanted to eat the whole pie, however, I only ate half of it. 

We went to the movies, afterward we went to the bar.

A sentence is a complete idea. If you connect two complete ideas with a comma, you have committed a comma splice. You should instead either use a semicolon (don’t use semicolons), or put in a period and use two shorter sentences. Alternatively, you can sometimes use a conjunction to bridge the two ideas.

This is different from a run-on sentence. Run-on sentences are grammatically correct, but stylistically inelegant. A comma splice is just bad grammar. 

Doing it right

I wanted to eat the whole pie, but I only ate half of it. 

We went to the movies. Afterward, we went to the bar. 

5. Compound Sentences Without a Comma

The fat cat sat in my lap and ran away when I tried to scratch him. 

He was rich and he was famous but he was desperately unhappy.

A compound sentence contains two or more ideas connected together closely enough they don’t require separation by a comma. Each of the ideas is called an independent clause. They belong in the same sentence, but you have to put a comma between them. 

You could also choose to make each of the independent clauses a complete sentence, but it’s good to vary sentence length throughout your work. It gives your prose a more natural and readable rhythm. Otherwise, it can become monotonous. 

Doing it right

The fact cat sat in my lap, andran away when I tried to scratch him.

He was rich, and he was famous, but he was desperately unhappy.

6. Count vs. Non-Count

She stole many thousands of dollar worth of jewelries.

They took up jogging to improve their healths.

Another thing you weren’t taught but understand and normally do intuitively: some nouns are countable and some aren’t. Usually, things you can hold in your hand or sort are count nouns: table, writer, dog. Things you can’t do that with are non-count information, advice, health. But there are exceptions: hour is a count noun, but jewelry isn’t. 

People get that confused by either including an article (you need to put a or an in front of count nouns, but not non-count nouns), or by pluralizing words that don’t require pluralization. 

Doing it right

She stole many thousands of dollars worth of jewelry.

They took up jogging to improve their health. 

7. Dangling Modifiers

Hoping to win their love, my parents were happy about the gift.

Unbeaten, the championship went to the home team.

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that’s supposed to add color and information to a noun, but the sentence makes it unclear which noun it’s supposed to do that for. Most of the time we make this mistake in one of two ways. 

The most common is in editing, when we accidentally delete the noun. The second most common is as in the examples above, where we lead with a phrase, but don’t connect it clearly after a comma. 

Doing it right

Hoping to win their love, my boyfriend bought my parents a gift.

Unbeaten, the champion team went the distance. 

8. En Dash vs. Em Dash

The course should take 10 — 12 weeks.

I ate the cake – the chocolate one – all by myself. 

There are two kinds of dashes. An en dash consists of one space worth of line (-), and is used to indicate a range. An em dash is longer, consisting of two spaces worth of connected line ( — ) and is used to create interjections. 

It can sometimes be a hassle to use an em dash, because not all word processing programs create one automatically when you type two en dashes. Also worth noting, if you do work for hire, different publications sometimes have policies that differ from the norm. 

Doing it right

The course should take 10-12 weeks.

I ate the cake — the chocolate one — all by myself. 

9. Meaningless Fluff

In fact, he didn’t do what he said he had done. 

I ate early in order to miss the rush.

Some things end up in a sentence because it’s how we talk, and how academics writing with word count requirements compose their articles, but they add nothing to the value of the sentence. Cut them out, with extreme prejudice. 

Mark Twain said it best. “Replace the word very with the word damn. Your editor will remove it, and the sentence will be as it should.”

Doing it right

He didn’t do what he said he had done.

I ate early to miss the rush.

10. Missing Comma After Introductory Element

In case you hadn’t noticed the lead singer didn’t come to the gig last night.

Before I could react the child fell into the diving pool.

If you put a partial clause at the beginning of a sentence, a comma goes in between it and the rest of the sentence. Leaving it out makes the sentence confusing and hard to read. 

This is especially important in the internet age, where people tend to skip long lines and blocks of text that lack punctuation and white space to guide them. 

Doing it right

In case you hadn’t noticed, the lead singer didn’t come to the gig last night.

Before I could react, the child fell into the diving pool. 

11. Parallel Structure Error

I wanted to study biology, chemistry, rocket scientist, and physics.

My goals are to lose weight, writing more books, and spend more time with my kids. 

A lot of the time, good writing vs. bad writing is a matter of consistency, and this is one of those times. If you make a list of something, each item on that list should have the same format. Many times, which format doesn’t matter. Just make sure it’s consistent throughout the list. 

Generally speaking, especially in nonfiction, if you format any given list in a certain way, all of the lists should also follow that same format. See also: whether or not you put periods at the end of items in a bullet list. 

Doing it right

I wanted to study biology, chemistry, rocket science, and physics.

My goals are losing more weight, writing more books, and spending more time with my kids.

12. Sentence Fragments

He commited the crime. Then waited for the consequences.

She loved him. In spite of everything. 

A complete sentence has a verb and a noun, with a little connective tissue between them. Technically, “Hulk smash!” is not a sentence fragment. If it lacks a verb or a noun, it’s a sentence fragment and a grammar error.

This one is tricky, because we do see sentence fragments used effectively in fiction, especially in dialogue. In those cases, the writer is breaking this rule on purpose for stylistic impact. You can get away with this sometimes, if you do it intentionally. It’s never okay if done on accident.

Also, the imperative case (giving instructions) sometimes looks like a sentence fragment, bus isn’t. In a sentence like “Go!” or “Have mercy!”, the subject is implied. It’s the person being spoken to.

Doing it right

He committed the crime, then waited for the consequences.

She loved him, in spite of everything.

13. Split Infinitives

She needed to quickly edit the book before giving it to beta readers.

He wanted to gradually increase his writing speed. 

All right. This one is subtle. An infinitive is when you combine the word to with a verb: to eat, to breathe, to write, to suffer. Although not technically against the rules, most experts agree that putting a word in between those two words weakens the power of the phrase. 

An infinitive forms a strong block of language, so breaking it up not only softens the infinitive, but reduces the impact of the word you put in between. It’s also worth noting that infinitives are almost always split by adverbs, and adverbs are often a mistake to begin with. 

Doing it right

She needed to edit the book quickly before giving it to beta readers.

He wanted to increase his writing speed gradually.

14. Squinting Modifiers

Listening to my brother whine slowly gives me a headache.

He drove the car slowly making progress.

A squinting modifier is an adjective or adverb placed in a sentence in a way where you’re not sure what it’s modifying. In the first sentence above, the reader is pretty sure it means the headache is coming on slowly, but it could also be suggesting that listening to his brother whine quickly doesn’t give him a headache. 

It’s often hard to catch this error and similar mistakes because you know exactly what the sentence means. You wrote it. Beta readers are a great tool for catching these more difficult to spot grammar issues.

Doing it right

I slowly get a headache from listening to my brother whine.

Driving the car slowly, he made progress. OR Driving the car, he slowly made progress.

15. Subject-Verb Disagreement

In this bar, guns is prohibited.

My son and his friends goes with me to the store. 

We already know that a subject and a noun make up a sentence. If you use a singular noun, you must use the singular form of the verb. If you use a plural form of a verb, it goes with a plural noun. Having a singular of one and a plural of  the other is a problem. 

This happens most often in complex sentences where you are describing more than one noun committing the verb. In that case, you usually use the plural since you’re talking about more than one noun. 

Doing it right

In this bar, guns are prohibited.

My son and his friends go with me to the store. 

What Are Your Writing Tics?

Besides clear grammar errors, every writer has a few personal foibles like phrases they use too often, words they just can’t remember how to spell, or typing habits like still double-spacing after periods. It’s a good idea to make a list of yours, then use the search function in your word processor after you’re otherwise finished with your manuscript.

Go through the list item by item, searching for your common personal writing achilles’ heels. Deal with them one by one to make your writing a new level better. 

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