If you’re a writer, chances are that you have at least some intuitive understanding of how English works, even if you don’t know what the difference is between the nominative and accusative cases or how to properly use the subjunctive tense. The good news is that the more obscure English rules don’t rear their ugly heads all that often. However, there are a few issues that do pop up with more regularity, and it might take more than a native ear to navigate them successfully. Here are five common grammar pitfalls and how to avoid them!
1) Subject Verb Agreement
In theory, subject verb agreement is very simple: if your subject is singular, your verb needs to be singular; if your verb is plural, your verb needs to be plural. Easy enough. In practice, however, it can get a little tricky because it’s not always immediately clear which noun is your real subject. Take the following, for example:
Although the cocktails at Snootbar are nothing short of exquisite, the quality of the appetizers are mediocre at best.
“The appetizers are mediocre” would be correct if it showed up alone, because both “appetizers” and “are” are plural. But the appetizers are not the star of the proverbial show here (See what I did there? Cue laugh track). The subject that pairs with the verb in bold is actually “quality,” which is singular. Sneaky, right?
The solution: work your way up the grammatical totem pole until you find the noun that doesn’t belong to anything else. For example:
The immersion of eggs in a pot of boiling water result in a delicious and protein-filled treat.
Our subject is not “water” because it is part of the larger phrase “pot of boiling water.” It’s not “pot” because that’s part of the larger phrase “eggs in a pot of boiling water.” It’s not “eggs” because the eggs are part of the larger phrase “The immersion of eggs.” Our subject here is in fact “immersion” because it doesn’t belong to anything else. Subject verb agreement can be especially tricky in instances like these because if you think only about information or content, “eggs” seems like the most important word here. But the most important content element isn’t always the most important or relevant grammatical element, so make sure you’re checking your totem pole!
2) Faulty Modification: The Phrase With the Missing Subject
When crafting our beautiful, lyrical descriptions, we need to make sure that descriptive words and phrases are attached to the things they’re describing. Such words and phrases can appear anywhere in the sentence, but it can be especially tricky to catch when a descriptive phrase begins the sentence.
Vast and impregnable, Sir Henry surveyed the ancient castle of Kingshome.
These issues can be hard to catch sometimes because your brain wants to be helpful, and it basically says “I know what you’re trying to say, so what’s the problem?” The problem, Brain, is that Sir Henry (probably) is not the thing we should be describing as “vast and impregnable.” We need to move that descriptive phrase so that it modifies “the ancient castle of Kingshome.”
Vast and impregnable, the ancient castle of Kingshome had guarded these cliffs for centuries beyond measure.
The sticking point here is, I think, the subject. I might start out my sentence intending to say something about Sir Henry, but if I begin the sentence with a description followed by a comma, the thing being described has to come right after the comma. So I can ditch the description, move the description, or ditch Sir Henry. Here, I think ditching Sir Henry is the best choice because we don’t need to see him seeing Kingshome. We can just look at Kingshome ourselves.
3) Comma Splices
The rules governing comma use are both plentiful and somewhat fluid, but one very common mistake that’s relatively easy to fix is (dun dun DUNNN) the dreaded comma splice. A comma splice occurs when a comma is used to connect two independent clauses, like so:
I watched two straight seasons of Gilmore Girls today, I think my brain might have melted.
If I put a period where that comma is, I would have two thoughts that could stand alone as sentences. That’s a problem. Why? Honestly, kind of just because. But we still need to do something about it, and we have several options:
1) We can add a conjunction or a subordination.
I watched two straight seasons of Gilmore Girls today, so I think my brain might have melted.
2) We can make one of the clauses a phrase by removing the subject-verb relationship.
As a result of watching two straight seasons of Gilmore Girls today, I think my brain might have melted.
3) We can change the punctuation.
I watched two straight seasons of Gilmore Girls today. I think my brain might have melted.
I watched two straight seasons of Gilmore Girls today; I think my brain might have melted.
I watched two straight seasons of Gilmore Girls today–I think my brain might have melted.
I think my brain might have melted: I watched two straight seasons of Gilmore Girls today.
Quick trick reminder: Wherever you see a comma, imagine a period and see if everything still makes sense. If it does, you know you have a problem.
4) Pronoun Case
This is my favorite thing to talk about because I got nailed for it all the time as a child and, as a result, it’s now one of my biggest pet peeves. There seems to be this conspiracy floating around that the subjective pronouns (I, he, she, we, they) are just inherently more proper and desirable than their objective counterparts (me, him, her, us, them). Verily do I say unto you, my writing brethren, THEY ARE NOT.
Subjective and objective pronouns do two different jobs: subjective pronouns replace the subject in the sentence, and objective pronouns replace the object in the sentence. When deciding which you need, you can think of it that way–is my pronoun doing something or having something done to it? But I feel like that adds an added step that can easily be screwed up. So you’re probably better off using your ears, but with a certain strategy in place. (People mess this up so often in real life that your normal ears probably aren’t going to be that helpful). Take for example a representative scene from my childhood:
Me. Me and Sofi want to go to the movies.
Mom (in a wildly irritating, snooty voice): I want to go to the movies. Sofi and I want to go to the movies.
Me: Okay, Dimitri is going to buy tickets for Sofi and I.
Mom: Dimitri is going to buy tickets for me. Dimitri is going to buy tickets for Sofi and me. Also, why is Dimitri buying your tickets? Is this movie rated R?!
Basically, you take the other person out of the equation and use just the pronoun to see what sounds right. “Dimitri is going to buy tickets for I” sounds a lot more obviously wrong when Sofi isn’t in the picture. Use this trick whenever you’re not sure and it should clear up the issue.
BUT WAIT, you cry. What if I need two people, as in the phrase “between you and I”? So glad you asked. For situations like these, use a plural pronoun. You would say “between us,” not “between we.” Because “us” is objective, we know that we need objective pronouns if we want to use two. The phrase should therefore be “between you and me.”
5) Less vs. Fewer
So this is actually a really easy one, though it’s often held up as one of those “ugh, GRAMMAR” kind of issues. But first, let’s review the real rule, which is admitteldy a bit fiddly.
The real rule:
‘Less’ is for collective and abstract nouns, while ‘fewer’ is reserved for concrete nouns Concrete nouns are things you can see and touch, like puppies and kittens and apples. Collective nouns are singular nouns that refer to several things at once, like ‘group’ or ‘team’ or ‘flock.’ Abstract nouns are things that don’t physically exist, like honor, courage, loyalty, truth, etc.
Why the real rule is confusing: First of all, that’s a lot of vocab. Who wants to have to remember three types of nouns and what they mean? Ugh, GRAMMAR. Secondly, categorizing the noun you’re dealing with can get a little tricky, because some nouns can be collective or concrete. You can talk about ‘fat’ in general, or you can talk about specific ‘fats’ like trans fats or saturated fats. So when you’re trying to decide whether to use less or fewer, you have to first decide whether the noun is acting like a concrete or collective noun, which is annoying when the noun in question could be either depending on how you’re using it.
The short cut: If your noun is plural, you use ‘fewer.’ End of story.
Less fat, fewer fats.
Less money, fewer dollars.
Less fruit, fewer apples.
So, there you have it! Hopefully we’ve given you a few tools to aid in your writing and editing. What other grammar gaffes do you struggle with?
Tamara Linden’s storytelling career began at the age of three with “Squirm the Worm,” which was warmly received by an audience of assorted beetles in rural New Jersey (yes, “rural New Jersey” is actually a thing). She went on to study music composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Gettysburg College. Now, as an exam prep tutor and budding college planning consultant, she has time to devote to her first love, writing. Her work has appeared in Seven Deadly Sins: A YA Anthology (Envy) and Timeless Tales Magazine. She currently resides in Pennsylvania with a very sweet and loving man and an only intermittently sweet and mostly grumpy cat. Connect with Tamara on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.