As an editor, I see errors of grammar, spelling, usage, and punctuation nearly everywhere the English language has been committed to writing. Unless these errors are in content that I’m editing (or, worse, that I previously reviewed), they don’t bother me at all. I expect to encounter linguistic quirks constantly because, well, language is complicated.
It’s so complicated that the words we hear in our minds or speak aloud can stop seeming so perfectly clear as soon as we’ve written them down. Without context such as tone of voice, body language, and nonverbal vocalizations (sigh), our meaning can become obscured if our sentence structure, punctuation, or word choice in any way lends itself to ambiguity.
That’s why it’s crucial to mind the grammar that underpins our shared language: It’s a rulebook that, when followed, assures mutual understanding. But we’re rebels, and most of us bend or break the rules at least some of the time. The problem is, if we ride our rule-flouting motorcycles roughshod over our content, we’ll alienate our readers who want clear information now.
So we need to know the rules (and when they can safely be broken) in order to maximize our content’s clarity. The first step is awareness, meaning knowing how to spot the grammar and punctuation errors that persistently arise and muddy our meaning. The next step is understanding why they tangle our text so badly. Finally, we need strategies for eradicating the errors. Read on for the top 10 errors that writers make all the time and how to go about fixing them.
Grammar is the structure of our language, as marked by word order and choice. Put another way, it governs inflection (the ways that words shape-shift to connote changes in number, gender, mood, tense, person, or voice) and syntax (the way words are arranged to form phrases and clauses). Here are the rules that most commonly trip us up:
A dangling modifier describes a subject that's not present and is only implied. Consider the case of, "While riding my bike, a raccoon crossed the street." We can logically assume that it was actually the speaker riding the bike ("While I was riding my bike, a raccoon crossed the street."), rather than the raccoon ("A raccoon crossed the street while riding my bike."), though the sentence suggests otherwise. A fix is to ensure we state the subject and never make the reader work too hard to deduce it. That will help us pull the dangling modifiers back from the edge and reintegrate them into the sentence.
Subjects and verbs disagree in number when one is singular and the other is plural. The problems here usually arise from confusion around the noun's number, and indefinite pronouns are a common sticking point. For example, pronouns such as everybody, either, neither, none, and nothing are singular, while plurals include both, some, most, several, many, and few. Another common distractor is a phrase or clause that comes between the sentence and the verb. For example, in the sentence "None of our puppies is named Frank," the verb's number must match that of the singular subject "none," rather than any part of the intervening clause, including the plural "puppies." The key is identifying the noun or pronoun that represents the ultimate subject and then determining its grammatical number (using a dictionary for reference if needed).
Pronouns take the place of nouns, but in some cases, it's not clear which nouns they represent. For example, in the sentence "Bob told David that nobody would replace him," the antecedent for "him" could be either Bob or David. Rewording the sentence (e.g., "'Nobody will replace me,' Bob told David.") is one potential fix. Another mix-up tends to arise when possessives are included and create confusion about the true subject. For example, in the sentence "In Drake's songs, he sounds really sad," we're referring back to "songs" with a "he," which doesn't line up. A fix could be to rewrite the sentence as: "In his songs, Drake sounds really sad."
Parallelism problems happen when two or more pieces of a sentence are similar in meaning but grammatically dissimilar in form. For example, "My name is Katie, and I like to nap, to eat vegetables, roller coasters, and dancing by the light of the moon" could be made parallel by remaking the list as "to nap, eat vegetables, ride roller coasters, and dance by the light of the moon." Fixing faulty parallels makes writing less confusing and more pleasing to the ear.
Differentiating between "who" and "whom" is just like telling "she" from "her" or "he" from "him." In each case, the former represents a subject and the latter an object. We wouldn't write "Whom ate my turkey sandwich?" because we also wouldn't answer "Her ate my sandwich" (unless we happen to be Cookie Monster). In both cases, we need a subject: a who or she. Consider a sentence like "To whom should I report this deluge in the basement?" When the sentence is rearranged as "I should report this deluge in the basement to him," we verify that the objective case is correct.
Want to feel safer in the Wild West of content and grammar? Check out Katie's 10 Editing Resources to Bookmark for Better Content to keep your wits about you.
So often, punctuation — or those little symbols we use to separate sentence elements and clarify their meaning — gets conflated with grammar. But along with spelling, capitalization, and style, punctuation is an example of mechanics, or the rules of the road for written (rather than spoken) language. If punctuation still seems indistinct from grammar, consider that oral communication can be analyzed for grammatical clarity — but not for proper comma placement.
To put it another way, punctuation comes into play only when our thoughts are transcribed. Accurately translating these thoughts onto paper (or a screen) means taking care to avoid the following:
A colon can separate independent clauses provided that two conditions are met: The second clause must directly relate to the first and must also be the sentence's point of emphasis. A colon can also do the following: tee up a list, signpost a clarification, or introduce a quotation. The important thing to remember: Colons always precede the most crucial information that will illustrate or expand upon the information that came before.
The versatile em dash is often treated like the Swiss Army knife of punctuation, as it can pinch-hit for a variety of other punctuation marks. The em dash is ideal for highlighting parenthetical information in a lively way. It's adept at setting off appositives — or phrases like this one that rename the nouns they sit beside — especially if those phrases contain lists, commas, or any other punctuation glut. And inserting an em dash is the best way to mark an abrupt turn in thought. But its utility has limits. Writers should be careful when swapping in the em dash for a colon or a semicolon, as this choice instantly informalizes writing. In general, overuse of em dashes gives prose an overdramatic effect. Grammar Girl generally advises limiting their use to two per paragraph.
A comma splice is when two independent clauses (aka standalone clauses that can act as full sentences) are joined by a comma and no conjunction. For example: "You're really bad with punctuation, you need to hire an editor." We have three options to fix the splice: add a conjunction (and, but, so, etc.) to connect the clauses, replace the comma with a semicolon, or separate the clauses into two discrete sentences.
Hyphens are needed to join compound modifiers (think "a little-known song") and avert the confusion and ambiguity we might suffer when encountering "a little known song" instead. Hyphens can also act as the glue in compound nouns ("that old so-and-so"). These require a light touch, lest we needlessly clarify that a chocolate chip cookie is a cookie featuring chocolate chips rather than a chip cookie flavored with chocolate. Finally, it's a wholly unnecessary step (not "a wholly-unnecessary step") to attach "very" or any "-ly" adverb to another modifier with a hyphen.
Commas are used for so many situations and in so many ways that the rules that govern them can fill volumes. One rule that seems a particular point of confusion, though, is when we do and don't need to separate adjectives with commas. In short, if the adjectives are coordinate — meaning you can flip their order or place an "and" between them without changing the meaning of the sentence — then commas go in between the adjectives ("tall, dark, and handsome"). If the adjectives are cumulative, meaning one modifies and builds on the next, then they can't be rearranged or separated by commas ("large brown North American grizzly bear"). If reordering the adjectives would sound strange or change the meaning, then no commas are needed.
At the same time, some allegations of rule-breaking are greatly exaggerated. What follow are not errors so much as proceed-with-caution items that require a judicious hand:
Even the editors of the Associated Press stylebook have decided that it's fine "to boldly go" where our ears for the language take us, even if that means splitting the infinitive form (i.e., "to + verb"). That said, insisting that one is "to go boldly" remains defensible, even if complaining about split forms as errors isn't quite so.
Preposition-capped sentences are an atrocity up with which some editors will not put. But those who cheerfully abide them shouldn't be looked at askance. Ending with a preposition when it's part of a verb phrase (e.g., "What are you talking about?") is not an error, though it makes for less formal constructions (compare it with "About what are you talking?"). But editors should still snip out extraneous prepositions that are unaccompanied by objects (e.g., "Where are you at?").
Verbs come not just in tenses, which mark time, but also in voices that denote the relationship between the action's subject and the verb. In active voice, the subject is performing the action, and in passive voice, the subject is receiving it. Because active voice creates clearer, more concise sentences, it's preferred for most styles of writing. But passive voice is useful (and necessary) when we know an action has been performed but we don't know whodunit. A good rule of thumb is to contain passive voice to less than 10% of our prose rather than stamp out all instances.
The best way to avoid writing errors is to carefully consider the intended message and look for potential ambiguities. When help is needed, use editing tools. Remember, our main goal in writing is clarity of communication, and bypassing these common grammar and punctuation obstacles will go far in ensuring that our work is understood.