Freelancing Friday: Five common grammar mistakes

cookie_closed by mouse on Flickr
cookie_closed by mouse on Flickr

As an editor, I see grammar/spelling/style mistakes and errors all the time in everyone’s work. Everyone’s work. Some of the editing work I do is for the Centre for Policy Development in Australia — they have a journal called Insight for which a lot of policy makers and academics write articles about how to create government policy on all sorts of subjects. What is surprising is that even academics make a ton of mistakes and that most of those mistakes are the same basic ones that other people make.

So here are the most common ones and how to avoid them. We all have to deal with written communication so I feel this is helpful to everyone not just writers.

  • Run-on sentences

    A paragraph generally (unless writing for the web) should have at least three sentences in it. Not three lines but three sentences. A sentence that is a run-on sentence is one that should be broken up into several smaller sentences because inserting a conjunction makes it hard to follow or alters the sense of what you want the sentence to say.

    A lot of run-on sentences generally have the words “which”, “therefore”, “whereby”, “however” and “thereby” repeated generously throughout the sentence. Trying to create new sentences everywhere you see one of these words will help you understand how to break up the sentences into smaller ones and still convey the meaning of the entire paragraph.

  • It’s and its

    Almost everyone gets this wrong at some point. If I type too fast, even I make this mistake without intending to as I forget to insert the apostrophe where it is needed. Its is the possessive form of It — you can remember it by thinking of how his and hers are spelt (spelled). Since they only require the addition of the letter s the same rule applies to it.

    It’s is actually a contraction for it is. The idea here is to remember that can’t is a contraction for cannot where the apostrophe ‘ takes the place of no in cannot. In the same way, the apostrophe ‘ takes the place of i in it is.

  • There/their/they’re

    These are homonyms — which means that they are different words with different meanings but they all sound the same. There refers to a place or direction in reference to person speaking. Their is actually a plural possessive. They’re is actually a contraction for they are and it is an informal one, most often used in speech rather than writing but it can find its way into fiction. If you are writing fiction, unless you are going to provide dialect specific speech for every single character, write they are and show character and place in speech through phrases, intonation and sentence structure.

    Your and you’re is the same mistake as well. The former is the possessive pronoun, the latter is the contraction of two words.

  • Starting sentences with conjunctions

    Do not start sentences with conjunctions. It makes the reader feel as if they have missed something important and then they have to go back and re-read everything to make sure that they haven’t. Conjunctions are words that join parts of a sentence together such as “however”, “but”, “and”, “or”, “so”, “therefore”, “because”. Yes “so” is a conjunction. At a pinch “so” can be used when depicting informal speech and “however” can be used when you really cannot use any other word. That is, however, as far as you can go with that and it depends on what kind of writing you are doing at the time. You may use them within the sentences but never at the start of one —  if I find one, the author has to rewrite the sentence.

    When writing your main objective is always to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand what you’re trying to say.

  • Commas and where to put them

    This is a comma: , . This is an apostrophe: . Commas tell the reader where to insert a pause when reading a piece of text. Pauses can be for emphasis, because it is natural to pause there or because it demarcates the beginning and end of a particular bit of information within the sentence. An oxford comma is a comma that is placed before each conjunction in a sentence. The oxford comma is now considered by some to be unneccessary, though placement of commas elsewhere in the sentence structure is still required.

    I often find myself taking out unneccessary commas or adding them in. I treat the oxford comma according to whatever style guide I am given or according to personal preference of the writer whose work I am editing. Personally, I seem to avoid it unconsciously.

What mistakes do you find yourself making all the time? What rules of grammar confuse you?

Link love from around the net:

1) 10 flagrant grammar mistakes that will make you look stupid. ZD Net
2) 5 grammatical errors that make you look dumb. Copyblogger
3) 5 grammar mistakes that make you sound like a chimp. Copyblogger
4) Top 10 grammar mistakes writers make. Beyond Rhetoric
5) Do you make these 7 mistakes when you write? Copyblogger

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.

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