Grammar mistakes are inevitable. Although most of us would like to think that we are infallible grammarians, unsusceptible to errors in syntax, we’re all human. Even those of us who are making the English language our life’s work (or at least our major) can fall victim to some of the most egregious mistakes that the English language has to offer. After paying careful attention to my own language usage and combing through a few of my old papers, here are five of the mistakes of which I am most guilty.
Top Five Grammar Mistakes
- I have a confession to make: I am having a love affair with the comma. There; I said it. It began years ago when I was young and stupid. The comma made promises to me. It told me that it would take me places. It said that it would make everything clearer. It promised to fill a void in my life. It said it would take the place of whatever was missing, and that whenever I felt like something was missing all I needed to do was call on it and it would fulfill all my needs. It lied.Commas are tricky little things. Use too few of them and you can end up in the middle of a run on sentence as vast and endless as the Sahara Desert. Use too many and you have comma splices all over the place, splitting your sentences into itty bitty pieces that make absolutely no grammatical sense. I am generally guilty of the latter.A comma splice is a type of run on sentence. The Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker calls a comma splice “two or more independent clauses joined by a comma with no coordinating conjunction” (Hacker 45). That’s a lot of technical jargon. Basically if each section of your sentence could be a standalone sentence, it probably doesn’t need a comma.If you are unsure whether or not a comma is warranted check for a coordinating conjunction. The words for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so (think of the acronym FANBOYS) are all coordinating conjunctions and can all be used to join two independent clauses (Hacker 45). You can also join a sentence by using a semicolon.
- I constantly find myself looking this one up. Irregular verbs do not follow the rules of most other verbs, and so in common language we usually just say what sounds the best. However what sounds right and what is grammatically correct are often different. For example, lay and lie; did I lay the book down or did I lie the book down? To lay means “to place” and refers to objects whereas to lie means “to recline” and refers to a person or animal (Hacker, 27). So the proper version of the previous sentence would be “I lay/laid/have laid/am laying the book down” (using all four forms of the verb, the base word, past tense, past participle and present participle). If I were to lie down for a nap, the sentence would read “I will lie/lay/have lain/am lying down” (Hacker 27).There are lists of irregular verbs here and here if you would like more examples.
- So apparently there is a name for this. If you Google “hilarious dangling modifiers” you’ll find websites like this one with sentences like “We saw several monkeys on vacation in Mexico”. Now obviously what this sentence means and what it says are two different things. I doubt there are families of monkeys vacationing in Cancun! The problem that occurs in this sentence is called a dangling modifier. This sentence can be easily fixed by simply adding a word to clarify the meaning: “We saw several monkeys while on vacation in Mexico”. Not all dangling modifiers are so simple to catch, but if you are looking through your writing and notice that something seems unclear, chances are you may have left a dangling modifier somewhere (Hacker 12).
- The opposite side of the run-on sentence coin, sentence fragments occur when a sentence does not have both a subject and a verb. This may seem like a no-brainer. “But Sarah, we learned the parts of a sentence in 2nd Grade!” Well yes, that is true. And yet, occasionally, a sentence fragment is occasionally acceptable. Say what? Acceptable fragments are widely disputed, so it is best to only use them in personal writing and only sparingly, but none the less, they are recognized (Hacker 44). I often times notice myself writing as if I were speaking, which means I have to go back and turn a fragment back into a complete sentence. It seems like a “no duh” kind of moment, but honestly it happens more often than you would think. In a world where we are so used to tech speak, keep an eye on your fragments.
- Another no-brainer, but it is so easy to switch from one tense to another, especially if a sentence contains an irregular verb and you aren’t sure about the tense. “She walked into her bedroom and lie down on the bed”. This sentence does not have tense agreement. It switches between past tense and the present tense. The proper version of this sentence would be “She walked into her bedroom and lay down on the bed”. Now both verb tenses agree. If you are unsure whether or not your tenses agree, be sure to look up your verbs, especially the irregular ones. I find myself dealing with this issue all the time (Hacker 29).
Other Mistakes I Notice
I do a lot of reading online, and some of the biggest mistakes I notice other people making are simple ones; confusing words like of and off, loose and lose, breathe and breath seem like such simple things, but they can have such a big impact on your writing, whether you are writing a piece of creative fiction or a scholarly text. The biggest thing that you as a writer can do is proofread. When in doubt, have someone else proofread for you. There are plenty of resources available to you if you are a college student both on campus and online to help you improve your writing. If you are not a university student, there are plenty of other writers throughout social media who are willing to help each other improve and become the best writers they can be.
Tips for Catching Your Mistakes
Write everything down first
- I have never been a big fan of the drafting method; it never really did much for me. However, the older and more experienced I get, the more I find that writing down the structure first helps me to get the mistakes out. Then I can go back and edit later.
Proofread and highlight suspected mistakes
- Don’t assume that you will remember what mistakes you need to look up. Use your word processor to highlight them as you are proofreading so that you can look them up later.
Ask for help
- Find someone to edit or proofread your work for you. It never hurts to have a second set of eyes, and another person will have a different set of strengths and weaknesses, which means they will catch different mistakes than you were able to in your own work.
Take a break
- Sometimes the biggest asset to your work can be a set of fresh eyes. Stop working and walk away from your piece for 24 hours. That way, when you come back to it, you will have fresh eyes and will be more readily able to find any mistakes you may have missed on your first pass.
- No one is perfect. Once you’ve given it your best shot and you believe you’ve done your best work, it’s time to turn it in and leave it be. Being a perfectionist will only drive you insane. Everyone makes mistakes. Accept that yours are part of what makes your writing unique, learn from the feedback you receive and work next time to improve and do an even better job.
Remember that no writer is perfect. Even those who have studied writing and the English language for years and write professionally make errors on a regular basis. Don’t get discouraged if you have an area that you know is a weakness for you. Just keep writing and doing your best.
Until next time, keep writing!
— Sarah, UC VAWLT Tutor
Hacker, Diana. A Pocket Style Manual. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.