Even after years of education, there are some things that some people still mess up. For me, it's algebra. For others, it's the laws of physics. And for many, it's grammar.
It's not easy. Words and phrases that sound fine in your head can look like gibberish when written down -- that is, if you even realize you made a mistake in the first place. It's easy for little grammar mistakes to slip by, especially when you're self-editing.
But how do you prevent grammatical errors if you're not even aware you're making them?
Well, you can start by reading through this post to see which common grammar mistakes resonate with you the most. (It's okay -- we're all guilty of at least one.) Make a mental note to avoid that mistake in the future, or heck, just bookmark this page to remind yourself of them over and over (and over) again.
30 Common Grammar Mistakes to Check For in Your Writing
1) They're vs. Their vs. There
One's a contraction for "they are" (they're), one refers to something owned by a group (their), and one refers to a place (there). You know the difference among the three -- just make sure you triple check that you're using the right ones in the right places at the right times. I find it's helpful to search through my posts (try control + F on PC or command + F on Mac) for those words and check that they're being used in the right context.
Correct Usage:They're going to love going there -- I heard their food is the best!
2) Your vs. You're
The difference between these two is owning something versus actually being something:
You made it around the track in under a minute -- you're fast!
How's your fast going? Are you hungry?
See the difference? "Your" is possessive and "you're" is a contraction of "you are." Again, if you're having trouble keeping them straight, try doing another grammar check before you hit publish.
3) Its vs. It's
This one tends to confuse even the best of writers. "Its" is possessive and "it's" is a contraction of "it is." Lots of people get tripped up because "it's" has an 's after it, which normally means something is possessive. But in this case, it's actually a contraction.
Do a control + F to find this mistake in your writing. It's really hard to catch on your own, but it's a mistake everyone can make.
4) Incomplete Comparisons
This one drives me up a wall when I see it in the wild. Can you see what's wrong with this sentence?
Our car model is faster, better, stronger.
Faster, better, stronger ... than what? What are you comparing your car to? A horse? A competitor's car? An older model?
When you're asserting that something should be compared to something else, make sure you always clarify what that something else is. Otherwise, it's impossible for your readers to discern what the comparison actually means.
5) Passive Voice
If you have a sentence with an object in it -- basically a noun that receives the action -- passive voice can happen to you. Passive happens when the object of a sentence is put at the beginning of a sentence instead of at the end. With passive voice, your writing comes across as sounding weak and unclear.
Hold up. Re-read that last paragraph I just wrote -- there's waaaaaay too much passive voice. See how it seems kind of jumbled and not quite punchy? Let's try that again.
Passive voice happens when you have an object (a noun that receives the action) as the subject of a sentence. Normally, the object of the sentence appears at the end, following a verb. Passive writing isn't as clear as active writing -- your readers will thank you for your attention to detail later.
Make sense? It's kind of a complicated thing to describe, but active voice makes your writing seem more alive and clear. Want to get into the nitty-gritty of avoiding passive voice? Check out this tip from Grammar Girl.
6) Dangling Modifiers
I love the name of this mistake -- it makes me think of a dramatic, life-or-death situation such as hanging precariously off a cliff. (Of course grammar mistakes are never that drastic, but it helps me remember to keep them out of my writing.)
This mistake happens when a descriptive phrase doesn't apply to the noun that immediately follows it. It's easier to see in an example taken from my colleague over on the HubSpot Sales Blog:
After declining for months, Jean tried a new tactic to increase ROI.
What exactly is declining for months? Jean? In reality, the sentence was trying to say that the ROI was declining -- not Jean. To fix this problem, try flipping around the sentence structure (though beware of passive voice):
Jean tried a new tactic to increase ROI after it had been declining for months.
7) Referring to a Brand or an Entity as "They"
A business ethics professor made me aware of this mistake. "A business is not plural," he told our class. "Therefore, the business is not 'they.' It's 'it.'"
So, what's the problem with this sentence?
To keep up with their changing audience, Southwest Airlines rebranded in 2014.
The confusion is understandable. In English, we don't identify a brand or an entity as "he" or "she" -- so "they" seems to make more sense. But as the professor pointed out, it's just not accurate. A brand or an entity is "it."
To keep up with its changing audience, Southwest Airlines rebranded in 2014.
It might seem a little strange at first, but once you start correctly referring to a brand or entity as "it," the phrasing will sound much more natural than "they."
8) Possessive Nouns
Most possessive nouns will have an apostrophe -- but where you put that apostrophe can be confusing. Here are a few general rules to follow:
- If the noun is plural, add the apostrophe after the s. For example: the dogs' bones.
- If the noun is singular and ends in s, you should also put the apostrophe after the s. For example: the dress' blue color.
- On the other hand, if the noun is singular and doesn't end in an s, you'll add the apostrophe before the s. For example: the lizard's tail.
Simple, right? If you want a deeper dive into the rules of possessive nouns, check out this website.
9) Affect vs. Effect
This one is another one of my pet peeves. Most people confuse them when they're talking about something changing another thing.
When you're talking about the change itself -- the noun -- you'll use "effect."
That movie had a great effect on me.
When you're talking about the act of changing -- the verb -- you'll use "affect."
That movie affected me greatly.
10) Me vs. I
Most people understand the difference between the two of these, until it comes time for them to use one in a sentence. They'll say something like:
When you get done with that lab report, can you send it to Bill and I?
But that's wrong.
Try taking Bill out of that sentence -- it sounds weird, right? You would never ask someone to send something to "I" when he or she is done. The reason it sounds weird is because "I" is the object of that sentence -- and "I" should not be used in objects. In that situation, you'd use "me."
When you get done with that lab report, can you send it to Bill and me?
11) To vs. Too
We've all accidentally left the second "o" off of "too" when texting in a hurry. But in case the mistake goes beyond that, let's review some usage rules.
"To" is typically used before a noun or verb, and describes a destination, recipient, or action. Take these examples:
My friend drove me to my doctor's appointment. (Destination)
I sent the files to my boss. (Recipient)
I'm going to get a cup of coffee. (Action)
"Too," on the other hand, is a word that's used as an alternative to "also" or "as well." It's also used to describe an adjective in extremes. Have a look:
My colleague, Sophia Bernazzani, writes for the HubSpot marketing blog, too.
She, too, is vegan.
We both think it's too cold outside.
You might have noticed that there's some interesting comma usage where the word "too" is involved. We'll cover commas a bit more later, but when you're using the word "too" to replace "also" or "as well," the general rule is to use a comma both before and after. The only exception occurs when "too" is the last word in the sentence -- then, follow it with a period.
12) Do’s and Don’ts
I'm not talking about the do's and don'ts of grammar here -- I'm talking about the actual words: "do's" and "don'ts." They look weird, right? That's because of two things:
- There's an apostrophe in one to make it plural ... which typically isn't done, and
- The apostrophes aren't put in the same place in both words.
Unfortunately, it's AP Style, so we just have to live with it. It's a hot angle for content formats, so I wouldn't shy away from using it. But when you're checking your writing for grammatical errors, just remember that the apostrophes should be in different places.
Note: There are different schools of thought about how to punctuate this one depending on what style guide/usage book you're using. The Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, recommends "dos" and "don'ts." The important thing is to be consistent and stick to one style guide, whether it's AP Style, Chicago, or your own house style guide.
13) i.e. vs. e.g.
Confession: I never remember this rule, so I have to Google it every single time I want to use it in my writing. I'm hoping that by writing about it here, the trend will stop.
Many people use the terms interchangeably when trying to elaborate on a point, but each one means something different: "i.e." roughly means "that is" or "in other words," while "e.g." means "example given" or "for example." The former is used to clarify something you've said, while the latter adds color to a story through an example.
14) Peek vs. Peak vs. Pique
This mistake is another one I often see people make, even if they know what they mean.
- Peek is taking a quick look at something -- like a sneak peek of a new film.
- Peak is a sharp point -- like the peak of a mountain.
- And pique means to provoke or instigate -- you know, like your interest.
If you're going to use one in your writing, stop and think for a second -- is that the right "peek" you should be using?
15) Who vs. That
This one is tricky. These two words can be used when you're describing someone or something through a phrase like, "Lindsay is a blogger who likes ice cream." When you're describing a person, be sure to use "who."
When you're describing an object, use "that." For example, you should say, "Her computer is the one that overheats all the time." It's pretty simple, but definitely something that gets overlooked frequently.
16) Who vs. Whom vs. Whose vs. Who's
Whoa. This one looks like a bit of a doozy. Let's break it down, shall we?
"Who" is used to identify a living pronoun. If you asked, "Who ate all of the cookies?" the answer could be a person, like myself ("I did"), or another living being ("the dog did").
Hey, both are realistic scenarios in my world.
"Whom" is a little trickier. It's usually used to describe someone who's receiving something, like a letter -- "To whom will it be addressed?" But it can also be used to describe someone on the receiving end of an action, like in this sentence:
Whom did we hire to join the podcast team?
"Whose" is used to assign ownership to someone. See if you can spot the error in this question:
Who's sweater is that?
Because the sweater belongs to someone, it should actually be written this way:
Whose sweater is that?
"Who's," on the other hand, is used to identify a living being. It's a contraction for "who is" -- here's an example of how we might use it in a sentence here in Boston:
Who's pitching for the Red Sox tonight?
See the difference? "Whose" is used to figure out who something belongs to, whereas "who's" is used to identify someone who's doing something.
17) "Alot" vs. A lot vs. Allot
I hate to break it to all of you "alot" fans out there, but "alot" is not a word. If you're trying to say that someone has a vast number of things, you'd say they have "a lot" of things. And if you're trying to say that you want to set aside a certain amount of money to buy something, you'd say you'll "allot" $20 to spend on gas.
If you're trying to remember to stay away from "alot," check out this awesome cartoon by Hyperbole and a Half featuring the alot. That face will haunt you for the rest of your content marketing days.
18) Into vs. In to
Let's clarify the "into" versus "in to" debate.
They're often confused, but "into" indicates movement (Lindsay walked into the office) while "in to" is used in lots of situations because the individual words "to" and "in" are frequently used in other parts of a sentence. For example, "to" is often used with infinitive verbs (e.g. "to drive"). Or "in" can be used as part of a verb (e.g. "call in to a meeting").
So if you're trying to decide which to use, first figure out if the words "in" or "to" actually modify other words in the sentence. If they don't, ask yourself if it's indicating some sort of movement -- if it does, you're good to use "into."
19) Lose vs. Loose
When people mix up "lose" and "loose," it's usually just because they're spelled so similarly. They know their definitions are completely different.
According to Merriam-Webster, "lose" is a verb that means "to be unable to find (something or someone), to fail to win (a game, contest, etc.), or to fail to keep or hold (something wanted or valued)." It's like losing your keys or losing a football match.
"Loose" is an adjective that means "not tightly fastened, attached, or held," like loose clothing or a loose tooth.
A trick for remembering the difference is to think of the term "loosey-goosey" -- both of those words are spelled with two o's.
20) Then vs. Than
What's wrong with this sentence?
My dinner was better then yours.
*Shudder.* In the sentence above, "then" should be "than." Why? Because "than" is a conjunction used mainly to make comparisons -- like saying one thing was better "than" another. "Then" is mainly an adverb used to situate actions in time:
We made dinner, and then we ate it.
21) Of vs. Have
I have a bad habit of overusing a phrase that goes like this: "Shoulda, coulda, woulda." That basically means I regret not doing something, but it's too late to dwell on it now. For example, "I shoulda done my laundry on Sunday."
But "shoulda," "coulda," and "woulda" are all short for something else. What's wrong with this statement?
I should of done my laundry on Sunday.
Since it's so common for us to throw around fake worlds like "shoulda," the above mistake is an easy one to make -- "shoulda" sounds like a shortened version of "should of." But really, "shoulda" is short for "should have." See how it works in these sentences:
I should have done my laundry on Sunday.
I could have taken a shorter route.
I would have gone grocery shopping on Friday, if I had time.
So next time, instead of saying, "shoulda, woulda, coulda," I should probably say, "should've, would've, could've."
22) Use of Commas
There are entire courses on correct comma usage, but let's go over some of the most common comma use cases here.
To separate elements in a series.
Each element in a series should be separated by a comma. For example: "I brought a jacket, a blanket, and an umbrella to the park." That last comma is optional. It's called an "Oxford comma," and whether you use it depends on your company's internal style guide.
To separate independent clauses.
You can use commas to separate independent clauses that are joined by "and," "but," "for," "or," "nor," "so," or "yet." For example, this sentence is correctly written: "My brother is very smart, and I've learned a lot from him."
An independent clause is a sentence that can stand on its own. Here's how to test it: Would the second part of the sentence (following one of those coordinating conjunctions) make a full sentence on its own? If so, add a comma. If it doesn't, leave it out.
To separate an introductory word or phrase.
At the beginning of a sentence, we often add an introductory word or phrase that requires a subsequent comma. For example:
In the beginning, I had no idea how to use a comma.
However, after reading an awesome blog post, I understand the difference.
15 Common Grammar Mistakes That Kill Your Writing Credibility
I love to write, but I’m not so crazy about grammar.
Learning about words that dangle, split, and get misplaced isn’t my idea of fun.
If you’re an author, particularly a self-published author, you need to do everything possible to win your readers’ hearts and minds. When they are distracted by grammatical errors or confused by the meaning of a sentence, they aren’t likely to buy your next book — or finish the one they are reading.
However, as an English major in college, I had it drilled into my head that poor grammar revealed laziness and a lack of respect for the reader. It’s the literary form of bad manners and exposes the writer as someone who isn’t serious about the craft.
As tedious as grammar may be to those of us who just want to write, it is well-worth a few minutes of your time to refresh the basics and make sure you don’t fall into one of the problematic grammar traps.
Here are 15 common grammar mistakes that can kill your credibility as a writer:
1. Subject-Verb Agreement Errors
The subject and verb of a sentence must agree with one another in number whether they are singular or plural. If the subject of the sentence is singular, its verb must also be singular; and if the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural.
Incorrect: An important part of my life have been the people who stood by me.
Correct: An important part of my life has been the people who stood by me.
Incorrect: The two best things about the party was the food and the music.Correct: The two best things about the party were the food and the music.
2. Sentence Fragments
Sentence fragments are incomplete sentences that don’t have one independent clause. A fragment may lack a subject, a complete verb, or both. Sometimes fragments depend on the proceeding sentence to give it meaning.
Incorrect: He gave his mother an extravagant gift after the argument. In spite of everything.
Correct: In spite of everything, he gave his mother an extravagant gift after the argument.
Incorrect: The boys snuck home late that night. Then waited for the consequences.
Correct: The boys snuck home late that night, then waited for the consequences.
3. Missing Comma After Introductory Element
A comma should be used after an introductory word, phrase, or clause. This gives the reader a slight pause after an introductory element and often can help avoid confusion.
Incorrect: In case you haven’t noticed my real name doesn’t appear in the article.
Correct: In case you haven’t noticed, my real name doesn’t appear in the article.
Incorrect: Before she had time to think about it Sharon jumped into the icy pool.
Correct: Before she had time to think about it, Sharon jumped into the icy pool.
4. Misusing The Apostrophe With “Its”
You use an apostrophe with it’s only when the word means it is or it has. Without the apostrophe, its means belonging to it.
Incorrect: I don’t believe its finally Friday.
Correct: I don’t believe it’s (it is) finally Friday.
Incorrect: The cat was licking it’s tail.
Correct: The cat was licking its tail.
5. No Comma In A Compound Sentence
A comma separates two or more independent clauses in a compound sentence separated by a conjunction. The comma goes after the first clause and before the coordinating conjunction that separates the clauses.
Incorrect: The man jumped into a black sedan and he drove away before being noticed.
Correct: The man jumped into a black sedan, and he drove away before being noticed.
Incorrect: She was beautiful and she was happy and she was full of life.
Correct: She was beautiful, and she was happy, and she was full of life.
6. Misplaced Or Dangling Modifier
A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is improperly separated from the word it modifies or describes. Sentences with this error can sound awkward, ridiculous, or confusing. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.
Incorrect: While walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a sparkly girl’s bracelet.
Correct: While walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a girl’s sparkly bracelet.
Incorrect: After finally setting off on the trail, the morning felt more exciting.
Correct: After finally setting off on the trail, he felt the morning was more exciting.
7. Vague Pronoun Reference
A pronoun can replace a noun, and its antecedent should be the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. A vague pronoun reference (including words such as it, that, this, and which) can leave the reader confused about what or to whom the pronoun refers.
Incorrect: When Jonathan finally found his dog, he was so happy. (The dog or Jonathan?)
Correct: Jonathan was so happy when he finally found his dog.
Incorrect: Don felt a lot of anger and bitterness as a result of Marie’s decision. This is what ended everything. (What ended everything? Don’s anger and bitterness or Marie’s decision?)
Correct: Don felt a lot of anger and bitterness as a result of Marie’s decision. Her choice ended everything.
8. Wrong Word Usage
There are a variety of words and phrases that are commonly confused and misused in sentences. Using them incorrectly can change the meaning of the sentence or simply reflect carelessness on the writer’s part. There are hundreds of these commonly confused words, so when in doubt, always check the definition and correct spelling of the word.
Read Related: The Oxford Comma
Incorrect: She excepted his offer to drive her home.
Correct: She accepted his offer to drive her home.
Incorrect: It was a breathe of fresh air to meet someone so genuine.
Correct: It was a breath of fresh air to meet someone so genuine.
9. Run-On Sentence
A run-on sentence occurs when you connect two main clauses with no punctuation.
Incorrect: She tried to sneak out of the house her mother saw her leaving.
Correct: She tried to sneak out of the house, but her mother saw her leaving.
Incorrect: He ran through the field as fast as he could all the while rain was soaking him to the bone.
Correct: He ran through the field as fast as he could. All the while rain was soaking him to the bone.
10. Superfluous Commas
It’s common writing mistake to throw commas around liberally when they aren’t necessary. There are dozens of examples of this error, but here are a few common mistakes.
Incorrect: The woman never went into the city, because she didn’t feel comfortable driving in traffic.
Correct: The woman never went into the city because she didn’t feel comfortable driving in traffic.
Incorrect: He wants to get a degree in engineering, or medicine.
Correct: He wants to get a degree in engineering or medicine.
Incorrect: Sam knew immediately, what was going to happen next.
Correct: Same knew immediately what was going to happen next.
Incorrect: Old cars, that have been left in a junkyard, are an eyesore.
Correct: Old cars that have been left in a junkyard are an eyesore.
Incorrect: The bouquet of flowers on the table, belongs to Mary.
Correct: The bouquet of flowers on the table belongs to Mary.
11. Lack Of Parallel Structure
Faulty parallelism occurs when two or more parts of a sentence are similar in meaning but not parallel (or grammatically similar) in form. It often occurs with paired constructions and items in a series.
Incorrect: He wanted to learn more about careers in programming, engineering, biochemist, and research scientist.
Correct: He wanted to learn more about careers in programming, engineering, biochemistry, and research science.
Incorrect: The key directives of his boss were clear:
- Meet monthly sales quotas.
- Aggressive marketing techniques.
- Reporting in every day.
Correct: The key directives of his boss were clear:
- Meet monthly sales goals.
- Practice aggressive marketing techniques.
- Report in every day.
12. Sentence Sprawl
A sentence can become a burden to read when there are too many equally weighted phrases.
Incorrect: Jason was planning to attend his friend’s wedding on June 30, but at the last minute he found out he had jury duty, so he couldn’t attend the wedding, and he felt really guilty about it.
Correct: Unexpectedly Jason was called for jury duty and couldn’t attend his friend’s June 30 wedding. He felt guilty about missing it.
13. Comma Splice
A comma splice occurs when two separate sentences are joined with a comma rather than a period or semicolon. Writers often create comma splices when using transitional words, such as however, therefore, moreover, nevertheless, or furthermore.
Incorrect: My intention was to take her out to dinner, however I decided not to invite her after all.
Correct: My intention was to take her out to dinner; however, I decided not to invite her after all.
Incorrect: My sisters and I love to go shopping, we then have lunch together when we’re done.
Correct: My sisters and I love to go shopping. We then have lunch together when we’re done.
14. Colon Mistakes
A colon is used after a complete sentence to introduce a word, phrase, clause, list, or quotation. The colon signals that what follows proves or explains the sentence preceding the colon.
Incorrect: People move to Florida for: the warmer weather, the beach, and the theme parks.
Correct: People move to Florida for three reasons: the warmer weather, the beach, and the theme parks.
15. Split Infinitives
An infinitive is the word “to” with a verb. A split infinitive separates the word “to” and the verb with another word (often an adverb). There are no grammar rules that prohibit split infinitives, but many experts disapprove of them. If the sentence sounds awkward by correcting the split, our rule of thumb is to go with what makes the most sense in the context of your writing and for the ease of reading. (For example, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” would sound awkward and less powerful as, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”)
Incorrect: She tried to quickly finish the book before she had to leave.
Correct: She tried to finish the book quickly before she had to leave.
Incorrect: He wanted to gradually improve his strength by increasing the weight.
Correct: He wanted to improve his strength gradually by increasing the weight.
As a serious author, you want to put your best foot forward with your writing. There are times and reasons to break some of the rules of grammar, but it’s wiser to break them knowing what they are and why you should stray.
Whenever you’re in doubt about a rule, take a brief moment to look it up. You’ll save yourself some embarrassment, and you’ll show your readers that you respect language and revere the art of writing well.