As a native speaker of the English language, I find myself making common grammar mistakes all the time. I’m guilty of typos, yes, but I’ve also committed egregious grammatical errors on occasion. These errors serve to remind me of the importance of proofreading. At other times, I’ll know a rule perfectly well and choose to ignore it.
Unlike in speech, where sentence fragments and dangling modifiers defy detection, the act of writing lays all our choices bare before the reader. Before you write, you should learn as much as possible about common mistakes. That way, you can either avoid errors or choose to flaunt the rules in the interest of style. Whatever you decide to do with this information, we’ve laid out the top ten cringe-worthy English language errors below.
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You may benefit from understanding the two types of run-on sentences—fused sentences and comma splices. A fused sentence occurs when you write an independent clause, then follow it with another independent clause without punctuation. When you separate two independent clauses with a comma, that’s called a comma splice. To correct a run-on sentence, you have several options. You can add a coordinating or subordinating conjunction, add a semicolon, or break the clauses into two separate sentences.
Comma Splice Example:
She ate salad, she didn’t eat soup.
Fused Sentence Example:
She ate salad she didn’t eat soup.
You can fix both of these incorrect run-ons by adding a coordinating conjunction:
She ate salad, but she didn’t eat soup.
You can opt to add a subordinating conjunction:
She ate salad because she didn’t eat soup.
You can add a semicolon.
She ate salad; she didn’t eat soup.
Lastly, you can break the phrases into two separate sentences.
She ate salad. She didn’t eat soup.
2. Dangling Modifiers
Misplaced modifiers, also known as dangling modifiers, occur when you’ve located the subject of a description too far away from the phrase that modifies it. The description should appear directly before or after the subject it’s modifying. In the examples below, you can see that changing the location of the subject changes the meaning in the following sentences.
Without knowing why, the dog appeared before me.
In this sentence, the dog doesn’t know why.
Without knowing why, I saw the dog appear.
In this sentence, I am the one who doesn’t know why.
As you can see, it’s very important to be mindful about which noun you place next to a descriptive phrase.
3. Sentence Fragments
Think of the sentence fragment as the opposite of a run-on sentence. Instead of having too many independent clauses, you don’t have enough. A fragment is a dependent clause that’s punctuated as if it were a complete sentence. In order to correct a sentence fragment, you need to add the parts of speech that will make the clause independent.
Becky. The person with the big head.
As you can see, in the example above, neither sentence offers an independent phrase. You can’t find any verbs in the two “sentences” above.
Becky, the person with the big head, sighed.
After adding a verb and some additional punctuation, we’ve created a complete sentence.
Of course, a writer might decide to chop a sentence into a few sentence fragments on purpose. Although not technically correct, sentence fragments cause the reader to pause at each punctuation. As a result, fragments can sometimes lend style and rhythm to creative writing.
4. Subject-Verb Agreement
The subject and verb must agree in order to make a sentence correct. If the subjects of the sentence are plural, be sure to choose a verb that agrees in number.
Daniel are awake.
Daniel is awake.
This rule seems straightforward; however, as sentence structure becomes more complex, you may need to identify the subject of the sentence in order to select the appropriate verb form.
5. Spelling Mistakes and Misused Words
Here are a few examples of words that people commonly misuse. You’ll notice that many of these words are homonyms (words that sound the same), sound similar, or prove difficult to distinguish by ear.
Irregardless is a synonym for regardless that’s not generally accepted.
Could Of/Could Have
Could of is a transcription of the phrase “could have,” as it sounds in everyday speech. Don’t use “could of” in formal writing; it’s incorrect.
6. Overuse of Quotation Marks
Many people use quotation marks more frequently than they should. In general, quotation marks should be used to set apart word-for-word language that you’ve borrowed from another source. Quotation marks can also be used for dialogue and component titles. A component title might include a chapter within a book or a song within a musical.
You can also use quotation marks to identify a word or bit of jargon that’s being used in an unusual way.
We found the “clue” to solve the mystery in a strand of her DNA.
Here, we’re acknowledging that the word “clue” is a metaphor. The word comes from police jargon, rather than the language of the science lab. Be cautious because this can seem like sarcasm or mockery if overdone. If you highlight one word of jargon, think hard before highlighting another soon after.
7. Pronoun Reference
A common mistake involves swapping the object pronoun for a subject pronoun, or vice versa.
She ate with him and I.
In the example above, it’s correct to use the object pronoun “me,” rather than “I.”
Similarly, it’s common to use a plural pronoun when a singular pronoun would be preferred, or vice versa.
Each team brought their own hockey sticks.
Since “team” is singular, each team should bring “its” own hockey sticks.
Sometimes, a sentence includes a pronoun with no clear antecedent. In order to communicate clearly, be certain that every pronoun you write has an antecedent.
The doctor and the child discussed the war she had lived through.
In the sentence above, it’s unclear whether “she” refers to the doctor or the child.
8. Misusing Apostrophes
It’s common to see people using apostrophes with possessive pronouns or plural nouns. In reality, apostrophes should only be used to make a noun possessive or set off quotations within quotations.
The house had a kitchen in it’s basement.
The house’s had basements.
The house’s basement contained a kitchen.
9. Incorrect Comparisons
Don’t leave a comparison unfinished. If you use a comparative, like longer, be sure to include the other item that’s being compared.
My days are longer.
My days are longer than they used to be.
Many people also mistake “fewer” for “less.” In order to use these words correctly, determine whether you’re discussing a group that contains many items or a singular concept. Use the word “less” only if you’re referring to a singular item or concept.
I noticed that we had fewer grains of salt in the blue container.
They had less salt at their table.
In the examples above, the word “salt” is being used as a singular noun, whereas the phrase “grains of salt” is plural.
10. Misusing Latin
Many writers confuse the abbreviations for two important phrases in Latin. Id est means “that is,” or “in other words.” Exempli gratia means “for example.” Be sure to only use i.e. when you rephrase or refine a meaning. Save e.g. for occasions that precede an example.
I adore dogs—i.e., Canis familiaris.
I adore dogs—e.g., Greyhounds, Salukis, Siberian Huskies.
In the first example, Canis familiaris is the scientific term for dogs. It’s appropriate to use id est in the first examplebecause we are rephrasing, rather than providing examples of breeds.
Make Mistakes With Purpose
In this article, we’ve reviewed the grammar rules that prove especially important when you’re writing. Certainly, you’ll find other grammar errors as you browse the web, but this list covers the ten most important writing tips that will keep your essays and emails looking sharp.
Now that you know the rules, feel free to break them when it suits you. After all, English is a living language! Things that we call “incorrect” today may be codified into grammar textbooks tomorrow. There’s a time and a place to exercise creativity; still, you may want to keep job applications and formal emails free from the mistakes that I’ve outlined above.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.