#5onFri: Five Grammar Mistakes Writers Should Avoid

by Sierra Delarosa
published in Writing

What’s the fastest way to lose your readers’ trust and interest? Sprinkle your text with grammar mistakes: mess with subject-verb agreement, write only in fragments or run-ons, add apostrophes where they don’t belong, and for good measure, get creative with spelling. If, however, you want to maintain credibility, you’ll need to mop up grammar errors and present only your best, most sparking prose to the world. No obvious mistakes, and ideally, no awkward phrasing or superfluous waffle either.

The infographic by The Expert Editor below offers a succinct guide to polishing your writing. This grammar cheat sheet lets you brush up on grammar at a glance and provides practical tips for proofreading. Here’s a preview:

Eradicate these 5 common grammar mistakes:

1) Dangling modifiers

I see this error all the time, even in published works! What’s a dangling modifier? It’s a word or phrase that modifies the wrong word in a sentence or is unclear about which word it modifies.

Consider these examples: “As a history buff, metal detecting is an enjoyable hobby for Jim.” Do you really mean to say that metal detecting is a history buff? Probably not. Try instead: “As a history buff, Jim enjoys metal detecting.”

“Exhausted after a long day, my bed looked comfortable.” Your bed was exhausted? Of course not! Instead: “Exhausted after a long day, I couldn’t wait to collapse into bed.”

If you’re still unclear on this topic, try focusing on the modifying word or phrase itself. Ask yourself who or what does this phrase modify? To take our first example above: “As an avid history buff…” Who is a history buff? The answer to that question (in this case, Jim) should be the subject of the subsequent main clause.

2) Sentence fragments

“Under the couch.” “Seeing that the door was unlocked.” It’s easy to let sentence fragments slip into your writing when you’re rushing to meet a deadline or jotting down a first draft.

As you edit your work, however, stay alert for fragments. Does each sentence contain a subject and verb? Does each sentence express a complete thought? If not, you likely have a sentence fragment on your hands!

Often, we become so familiar with our own writing that we skim right over fragments. Try reading your text aloud as you proofread. Your ears will catch mistakes that elude your eyes. Sometimes the occasional sentence fragment is a fine stylistic choice, especially in literary or less formal writing—but using fragments should always be a conscious decision, not an inadvertent mistake.

3) Misusing it’s and its

The distinction between “its” and “it’s” is simple, but writers still confuse them sometimes. After all, we’re accustomed to adding “apostrophe + s” onto nouns to indicate possession: the boy’s bike, the car’s wheels. Don’t be fooled. To make “it” possessive, all you need is “s.” In short:

Its = possessive pronoun.

It’s = contraction = it is.

For example: “The dog grabbed its tennis ball.” “I love reading; it’s my favorite hobby.”

Keep an eye out for this common mistake as you’re proofreading.

4) Unclear antecedents

Can you spot the mistake in the following sentence? “The woman tried to reassure her daughter, but she remained worried.” The problem is the ambiguous pronoun “she.” Does “she” refer to the mother or the daughter? Either could make sense in context. How can we rephrase this sentence for greater clarity?

If “she” refers to the mother: “Despite her own worries, the woman tried to reassure her daughter.”

If “she” refers to the daughter: “The woman tried unsuccessfully to reassure her daughter.” Or: “The woman tried to reassure her daughter, who remained worried.”

Vague pronoun antecedents are hard to detect in your own writing unless you’re actively looking for them. After all, you know exactly what you mean, so you won’t be baffled by your own pronoun choices. For this reason, I recommend handing off your draft to a friend, colleague, or editor for a second opinion.

5) Confusing less and fewer

Despite the best efforts of high school English teachers everywhere, confusion between “less” and “fewer” abounds. Here’s how to tell them apart:

Are you describing quantifiable things? People or objects in the plural? Use “fewer.” For instance: “Buy fewer potatoes next time!” “Fewer people smoke these days.”

Are you describing something unquantifiable? A collective noun? Use “less.” Examples: “I use less salt when cooking now.” “She has less time this semester.”

One more thing: numbers and measurements may be quantifiable, but they’re accompanied by “less.” You may already know this rule instinctively. Writing “I have fewer than $5” sounds awkward, while “I have less than $5” sounds much more natural. Just remember that when you’re dealing with time, distance, money, and weight, “less” is likely the right choice.

Sierra Delarosa is a musician, scientist and writer. She is the content manager for Global English Editing.


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