That is, grammar is probably the most frustrating (and therefore most feared) part of writing. It may feel like something obscure or unclear, or it may feel like a pain in the neck. There are even areas in which there is no consensus. Ask a writer if they use a serial comma, and you’ll certainly cause a heated debate (1).
I think that one of the main reasons grammar is so highly regarded is the many rules and regulations that are out there, and also the many easy mistakes that can be made that can make or break something. As I have been writing and reviewing other people’s work, I have run into many different kinds of errors. I have also run into some minor mistakes or unclear decisions. I have found that if you are able to avoid a few very common mistakes, it will reduce the number of errors that you need to fix in your work. So, without further ado, here are five very common mistakes that you should stay alert to when you are writing your work.
1.“It is versus it’s.
Those are the biggest mistakes that I see that even native speakers can get confused over. While apostrophes and punctuation are a frequent issue for people, people are still very much more likely to say “its” vs “it’s” in this section than they are in the next section. When deciding which one to use, keep in mind that “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” and “its” is a possessive referring to something that I have already mentioned. When I use “it’s” to say “it is”, I can always tell if I’m using the right one. One example is the sentence “it’s running!” If you expand it, it will read as “it is running” or “it is running”. That is a good use of the word ‘running’. On the other hand, “It was lying on its side” would sound awkward if it were “it” instead of “its”.
2. I said, they are their, and they are there.
As a result, a lot of ink has been spilled on those three words. That’s why I’ll keep this section brief. It is important that you remember this:
- They are referring to the state of something: “they are”.
- A group of people may possess something, or they may control something. A group of people in a third person and a second person may have their car.
- Wherever — that is, refers to a place: “over there”
It can be helpful to use the trick I talked about before about “it’s”. What questions are you able to ask yourself to make sure it’s the right word? Is this referring to something that a bunch of people own? Is there a location involved? Be sure to look up exactly what that word is referring to, so that you do not get confused.
3. No longer necessary commas, especially before “because”!
Choosing between the two options is sometimes a bit contentious, as some people feel that it’s more of a stylistic decision. When it comes to commas, there are a huge amount of mistakes that you can get rid of. It is written in Garner’s book Modern American Usage, and there are about 2 dictionary-sized pages on this subject. I will emphasize one that is very common: commas that appear before the word ‘because’. Then look at the sentence below.
He said, “I ran to the store, because I needed to buy some peppers.”
In that example, the comma is a mistake that is unnecessary because it is not necessary for separating something that needs to be separated. The word ‘because’ serves as a linking verb that binds the two parts together. People make this mistake a lot, because people are told that commas can be used to represent a pause in speaking, but in this case it does not belong. I would say that, in order to avoid this, I would not do it altogether, because it’s extremely rare that it is considered acceptable, and even if it were, it would sound much better if rephrased.
4. There is disagreement between subject and verb.
I would say this is less common than the others, but I’m including it here because when it does appear in writing, it’s jarring; I would say this error can really derail whatever you were trying to communicate to the reader because of how distracting it is. This is a good example of this error:
It is true that today the actors are performing a play.
Consequently, the subject of “the actors” is plural, but the verb “is” is singular. This is the main issue that causes the error: the subject and verb aren’t both singular, but rather they mismatch. So there are two ways that I find useful for avoiding that. Then you should first make sure that you know what the subject of your sentence is and that you can match the verb to it. A second one is just reading the sentence out loud. A lot of times, big errors can be noticed even if you hear them being spoken.
5. Abusing passive voices.
This is a common error that many writers make when they are writing academic papers. When I started writing, I had plenty of issues with it. When it comes to writing, there is a “active voice” and a “passive voice”. Both of these phrases refer to two different ways in which sentences can be structured:
- Some sentences that use active voice are those where a subject is acting upon an object. There is a subject, a verb, and an object. So, he shouted at the waiter.
- The passive voice sentences are used when the subject of the sentence is acting on the object. They are organized in the form of object + verb + preposition (the word “by”) + subject. In this situation, let’s take an example. The waiter was yelled at by him.
In some situations, the passive voice is not always wrong and can also help emphasize the object of the verb (say, ‘my boyfriend was attacked by a dog!’). The meaning of that sentence is different from “my boyfriend’s dog attacked my boyfriend!”. When they overuse it, they generally feel like the writer is not confident in what they’re saying, or that they’re reading very bizarrely. Try and see whether you can tell the difference.
- The British army declared war on the people in August 1914.
- When the British finally declared war, it was in August 1914.
The latter sentence is more clear and it sounds more confident. If possible, try to use the active voice whenever possible.
When it comes to grammar, there are still many things that you need to remember and watch for. But I hope that these tips and this list will help you avoid some pitfalls. By doing that, you will have more time and energy for other things in your writing.
(1) Author’s note: When you write, make sure to use a serial comma.