Lynne Truss once said “If you still persist in writing ‘Good food at it’s best,’ you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave.” That sounds pretty brutal, but then again as the author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” she has some pretty strong opinions when it comes to punctuation. Of course, a misplaced apostrophe isn’t a capital offense, as Truss imagines it, but she’s right in a way. Few things irritate readers more than bad punctuation and grammar.
The problem is that grammar can be tricky. Even the best writers can get tripped up from time to time. Meanwhile, it’s often touch and go for everyone else. But fear not. In this post, we’re calling out eight common mistakes that even good writers make, so that you don’t.
1. Subject-verb agreement
When you write a sentence, always make sure that the subject and verbs agree. If the subject of the sentence is singular, its verb must also be singular; and if the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural.
Incorrect: The business have paid out a record amount.
Correct: The business has paid out a record amount.
Seems pretty obvious, right? Yet, in more complicated sentences, writers can make mistakes. Consider this example:
Incorrect: The number of great ideas she had were staggering.
Correct: The number of great ideas she had was staggering.
In this case, the subject is number (not ideas), which is singular.
2. Missing the comma after an introductory element
You need to have a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause. This not only provides a slight pause for ease of reading, but also makes the meaning of the sentence clearer.
Incorrect: In the event of a fire everyone must be evacuated.
Correct: In the event of a fire, everyone must be evacuated.
This is one of those rules that people seem to remember some of the time, but not always. Make sure to check your copy carefully.
3. Confusing “its” and “it’s”
“Its” is used to show possession. Meanwhile, when you add an apostrophe, it’s becomes the contraction of “it is” or “it has.”
Incorrect: I think its going to be expensive.
Correct: I think it’s going to be expensive.
Incorrect: One of Berlin’s best features is it’s nightlife.
Correct: One of Berlin’s best features is its nightlife.
4. Missing a comma in a compound sentence
When two independent clauses are separated by a conjunction (and, if, but, or, etc.), then you need to have a comma after the first clause and before the conjunction that separates them.
Incorrect: The dog stole the child’s toy and the child cried.
Correct: The dog stole the child’s toy, and the child cried.
5. Misplaced modifiers
Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that add descriptions to sentences. A misplaced modifier is one that is separated from the word it logically describes. Misplaced modifiers make sentences clunky and can cause confusion.
Incorrect: On the way to school, Jack discovered a gold man’s watch.
Correct: On the way to school, Jack discovered a man’s gold watch.
In the example above, gold is the modifier and watch is the word that it modifies. Therefore, you want to keep the words gold and watch together.
6. Lack of parallel structure
This is when items or ideas in a sentence are similar, but don’t follow the same grammatical pattern.
Incorrect: Sam likes to swimming, writing, and exercise.
Correct: Sam likes swimming, writing, and exercising.
7. Colon or semicolon?
The colon is used to introduce, define, or explain something that comes after a clause, such as a word, phrase, or list. A semicolon separates two clauses of equal weight, which are related, rather than writing them as two individual sentences.
Incorrect: It was 10 degrees below zero: Scott thought he might freeze to death.
Correct: It was 10 degrees below zero; Scott thought he might freeze to death.
Incorrect: Scott knew what to do immediately; check out.
Correct: Scott knew what to do immediately: check out.
8. Possessive apostrophes
While apostrophes are used to show possession (e.g., my friend’s house), that’s not the case with possessive pronouns such as ours, his, hers, its, their, or theirs.
Incorrect: He told me the book was their’s.
Correct: He told me the book was theirs.
The key to good writing
Grammar gives your writing clarity, meaning, and readability. Everyone makes mistakes at some point or other, and good grammar skills don’t come naturally to everyone. This is why it’s worthwhile giving yourself a refresher on some of the trickier rules.
To learn more about another pesky grammar issue, hyphen usage, see The Right Way to Use Hyphens.
Can’t be bothered? How about letting Acrolinx do the work for you? That way, you can write with confidence, knowing your content is always correct.