My Top Ten Grammar Mistakes

There, Their, They’re… Grammar isn’t that hard– right?

As a writer whose preference is to thought dump, write unfiltered, and just throw words onto a page–– sometimes I do so at the cost of flawless grammar. Hey, I’m only human!

My favorite grammar tool in my writers tool-kit is my Grammar Girl Presents The Ultimate Writing Guide for Students by Mignon Fogarty. I bought the book for a freshman seminar in college and have clung onto it ever since. I think it is the only textbook in college I didn’t try to sell back!

Being a writer and having good grammar go hand in hand. Understanding the core principles of grammar has helped me with critiques and getting feedback on my writing. If my critique partners spend less time fixing grammar mistakes, they have more time to provide honest and useful feedback about the meat of the story.

I took the time to research the top grammar mistakes made my Newbie writers, and I found that I make them too. Generally, I make these mistakes while writing my first draft. Polishing grammar is what I reserve for the editing phase.

While taking a public speaking class in college, my instructor would audibly point out every time I would use the words “like” or “um”. I began to notice these filler words and started to weed them out before I dropped an unnecessary “like” into a sentence. Similarly, being familiar with these common writing mistakes helps you to not make the mistake in the first place. Your writing will shine because of it!

In the words of an anonymous blog post online:

 “Poor grammar… is the literary form of bad manners and exposes the writer as someone who isn’t serious about the craft.”

Anonymous Blog Post

1. Their they’re, it will all be okay!

Homophones are riddled in the English language and can cause some easy to fix mistakes. Sometimes I misuse a word because I am simply writing to get words out of my brain. I really did mean to write bare as in naked or void, instead of bear, as in grizzly or teddy.

My best suggestion for this common mistake is to research lists of commonly misused words. Here is a good one by Grammarly. What I do with the list is dub the words as buzz words. Whenever I write one of the words a little buzzer goes off in my brain and I mentally go back and confirm that I used the correct one. I also have a running buzz list for the words I have the tendency to misuse a lot. Whenever I move from drafting to editing, I try and skim for those words specifically.

2. It’s probably safe to assume that you should keep your tense consistent

As you begin writing a novel, one of your first choices might be selecting what tense you wish to write it in (unless you are me and decide to switch after having a first draft completed). Learn from me! Pick a tense (usually the past tense for most fiction novels) and stick with it.

General guideline: Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same.

-Purdue Owl

What this translates to is: all the elements that run in the narrative of your storyline should keep a consistent tense. The exceptions to this would be the times the action or state might change. Examples of this could be a flash back (action change) or within dialogue/ inner thoughts (state change).

3. He said/she said and the points in between

I remember the days when I had an irrational fear of writing dialogue. I would avoid it like the plague. Now that I have found the joy of developing a character and giving them a voice, I find that sometimes I focus a little too close on dialogue. Often in my first draft I write lines of dialogue bouncing back and forth–– no setting, no dialogue tags. Essentially, I write words spoken into a blank void. Remember, balance is key.

But with great dialogue comes a great observance of dialogue rules. Here are five basic rules I felt a need to point out:

  1. Each speaker gets a new paragraph. 
  2. Each paragraph is indented. 
  3. Punctuation for what’s said goes inside the quotation marks. 
  4. Long speeches with several paragraphs don’t have end quotations. 
  5. Use single quotes if the person speaking is quoting someone.

However, there is much more where that came from. Here is an excellent dialogue rules guide by the Self-Publishing School (which is definitely where I pulled the five basic rules above!).

4. When nouns and verbs don’t want to agree

But they should! Nouns and verbs must agree. This essentially boils down to singularity and plurality. If the subject (noun) is singular than the verb must reflect that. i.e. Mary HAS a little lamb.

Of course, the English language is weird and there is a lot of more complex examples. But essentially the rule of thumb is to keep it consistent!

5. To em-dash or not to em-dash?

For a while, the em-dash scared me. I honestly think it was because I didn’t know where to find one on my keyboard––but look at me now! I see em-dashes pop up frequently in fiction. I’ve been reading a lot by author Sarah Maas lately, and she is a big fan of the em-dash. So what is the deal with them?

Good authors know how to create a rhythm in their writing. They will write in a cadence to match not only their style as a writer but also the mood of the novel. Em-dashes are a great way to bring attention to certain phrases. Sometimes when you use an em-dash instead of a comma, colon, or semicolon–– your words have a dramatic flair to them.

An em-dash gives you another option when you are dealing with a phrase that describes or elaborates upon a noun… use it only when it is clear that you want to add emphasis.

Chris Lele, Writer for Grammar Girl

BONUS: I struggled with determining when to use an ellipse versus an em dash until I discovered this good rule of thumb…

Use an ellipse: When you wish to suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.

Use an em-dash: When you wish to suggest more confident and decisive pauses.

6. My commas are like confetti

You can just throw commas wherever, right? Wrong! It is true that commas are one of the most commonly used punctuation marks. Despite a crazy number of ways to use them and the fact that some comma rules are just stylistic preferences (Oxford comma anyone?), commas should never be sprinkled in for the fun of it.

I was guilty of overusing commas and used them any time I had a pause in my writing. Because of my (very rational) fear of the semi-colon, I often misused commas. So if you are like me, brushing up on comma rules might be a good idea. Because, unlike actual confetti, misused commas do not make your words prettier.

7. Colons and the dreaded semi-colon

Whenever I talk about colons and semi-colons I always get excited because it usually brings up clauses. And no matter how much I learn about grammar or how old I get, the word clause will always remind me of Christmas. Ha!

But since we aren’t actually talking about Santa, I will reel it in. A big difference between when to use a colon versus a semicolon comes down to the clauses in your sentence. Semi-colons (the scariest of the punctuation marks, in my opinion) are used when combining two independent clauses in a single sentence. This means the clauses could stand apart as their own sentences, but they work well together. A semi-colon is a big happy sentence family.

However, the colon can be used to either combine a dependent clause with an independent clause or two independent clauses. It is the mystical elf of the punctuation world. I always keep in mind that the purpose of the colon is to introduce or define something.

8. Maybe I want my modifiers to dangle

I am constantly told to keep my sentence structure active. In order to do so, this means the subject of the sentence is going to come first and do the action. This is important when it comes to modifiers because you want to make sure that the subject matches the modified clause.

If you were to say: “While going on a run, trash cans had accidentally tipped over”, its seems as though the trash cans were going for a run. Instead, don’t let the modifier dangle and correct it to read something like: “While going for a run, I accidentally tipped over trash cans.” Who went on a run? I did!

Dangling modifiers are easily fixed by making sure that the subject of the modifier is clearly defined.

9. But, like actually…

This one could definitely be lumped into the misused word category, but I make this mistake a lot so I am giving it its own shout out. Similar to using the word “like” as a filler word in public speaking, I sometimes find that I inappropriately use like as a crutch while writing. I also do this with the word “so” and find myself eliminating it hundreds of times.

“Like” is often used in place of “as though”, which might work if you are writing dialogue for a teenager (which happens a lot in my YA novel). However; the word “like” is not interchangeable. “Like” can only be followed by a noun or pronoun. A good example is: “I look like a hot mess express.”

 “As though” precedes a verbal clause–– such as: “I laughed as though there was no tomorrow!” I usually check myself by reading the sentence and replacing the word “like” with “as though”. If the sentence still makes sense, then I keep the “as though”.  

10. I like to run, but my sentences shouldn’t

Sometimes I am running and the streets just seem to go on and on. I will keep moving and wonder, “where is the next intersection or traffic light?” (the punctuation of the running world). But as a runner, it is not ideal to be interrupted with stops.

The opposite is true when it comes to writing. Punctuation is your friend! Run-on sentences are merely sentences that lack proper punctuation. This almost the opposite of using commas like confetti. In the case of a run-on sentence, it can often be fixed by adding proper punctuation. And I provide my last Grammar Girl plug to a post that helps locate and fix run-on sentences.

Happy Writing!

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