As a blogger and marketer, I start my day by looking at a few news and blog feeds. From small blogs to nationally-renowned publications, I scour it all and find great information and inspiration. But I also find something else: LOTS of typos and grammatical errors (yes, even in those award-winning publications that are respected around the world.) The same goes when I’m editing other people’s writing. The English language can include some tricky rules, but you’d be surprised by how many grammatical mistakes I come across from seasoned professionals and beginners alike. Most of the time it’s small errors rather than something egregious, but it’s left me wondering: have we forgotten the fundamentals? It seems like spell check, other autocorrect tools and the need to get information out quickly may be taking over attention to detail.
That’s why we want to roll it back to some of the grammar fundamentals that are sometimes overlooked. Just like pro baseball players practice basics like pitching and batting before every game, every writer can use these to help hone their skills and avoid any grammatical mistakes.
Let’s dive in.
The first grammatical mistake we are going to touch on is probably also the most common one I come across: incorrect use of contractions.
This refers to words such as “it’s”, “you’re”, and “they’re”, where an apostrophe is used to combine two words.
Here are some of the worst offenders and a refresher on how to use them correctly:
Its vs. It’s
The misuse of the word “it’s” is probably the most frequent goof I encounter when reading or editing content.
Here’s why it is tricky for some writers: the version with the apostrophe is NEVER possessive.
- It’s = always a shortened version of “it is”
- Example: It’s a beautiful day outside
- Its = the possessive version of the word “it”
- Example: The bunny ate all of its hay
The best way to avoid this common mix-up is to ask yourself if you are trying to say “it is” because that is the only time the apostrophe is needed. Otherwise, please throw it out the window!
Your vs. You’re
This is another one that comes down to what you mean to say.
- Your = always the possessive version of the word
- Example: Is this your pencil?
- You’re = always a shortened version of ”you are”
- Example: You’re going to look unprofessional if you misuse these words
Their vs. They’re
Again, this comes down to whether you’re trying to use a contraction or a possessive word.
- Their = always denotes ownership
- Example: That is their dog
- They’re = always a shortened version of “they are”
- They’re going to bring the dog to our house
Theirs vs. There’s
I think you’re seeing the pattern here.
- Theirs = possessive
- Example: This book is theirs
- There’s = always a shortened version of “there is”
- Example: There’s always a need to proof your writing
Lets vs. Let’s
Here’s one more that happens a lot:
- Lets = another way to say “allows”
- Example: The teacher lets us study outside
- Let’s = always a shortened version of “let us”
- Example: Let’s all go down to the pool
When in Doubt, Break It Up
You’ll notice a lot of contractions in this blog post because I’m trying to keep it casual, but there’s a great rule of thumb I was taught when working for newspapers and other more formal media: if you avoid contractions, you are a lot less likely to mess them up.
So if you’re in doubt, tweak your sentence or break your words up. Say “you are” instead of “you’re”, “there is” instead “there’s”, and so forth.
Commonly Confused Words
Now onto some words that are often incorrectly used in place of one another. Misusing these words can change the meaning of the sentence or make it incorrect entirely.
Some of these might feel like Grammar 101, but again, it’s essential to keep the fundamentals in mind if you want to succeed!
Affect vs. Effect
A lot of people have trouble telling these homonyms apart. Let’s take a closer look.
- Affect =another word for “impact” or “influence”; usually used as a verb
- Example: Typos affect how professional your writing looks
- Example: Her words affected me deeply
- Effect = the outcome or consequence of something; usually used as a noun
- Example: The cost of living has an effect on lifestyle choices
If you have a hard getting it down, a great alternative is to use a synonym instead. So instead of “affect” you could say “change” or “influence”, and in place of “effect” you could use a word such as “outcome”.
Peek vs. Pique vs. Peak
While these three words sound the same, they have very different meanings. Here’s what you should know:
- Peek = another word for “glance“
- Example: He’s taking a peek at the information
- Pique = typically used as a verb that means “to arouse” or “provoke”
- Example: Does this content pique your interest?
- Peak = tip, top, or summit
- Example: We can see the peak of the mountain through the clouds
Who vs. That
This common error simply comes down to who or what you are talking about.
- Who = used when referring to a person or group of people
- Example: Is he the guy who asked for your number?
- That = used when referring to an object or animal
- Example: These are the mice that completed the maze
The best thing to keep in mind here is that a person isn’t a thing. I personally wouldn’t want to be called “that!”
Then vs. Than
This is another very common violation that really irks the grammar police.
- Then = references time or the outcome of something
- Example: Take a break then get back to work
- Than = used in comparisons
- Example: A pen is more permanent than a pencil
Loose vs. Lose
These are two more often-swapped words that definitely aren’t interchangeable.
- Loose = not tight
- Example: Her daughter has a loose tooth
- Lose = the opposite of winning or gaining
- Example: Exercise will help you lose weight
Who vs. Whom
I’ll admit that even as a writer for the better part of a decade, this is one of the common grammatical mistakes I’ve been guilty of many times.
In grammatical terms, who is a subject (a person doing an action) while whom is an object (a person on the receiving end of something).
It’s one of the trickier grammar rules to remember, but here’s a handy trick that will help you out:
- When to use “who”: If the word can be replaced with “he/she”
- When to use “whom”: if the word can be swapped with “him/her”
Here are some examples in action:
- Who wants to go to the store?
- Since “who” can be interchanged with “he/she”, it is the correct use
- You like whom?
- Since “whom” can be interchanged with “him/her”, it is the correct use
Pluralizing Eras and Abbreviations
Another common blunder writers make is adding an apostrophe in years or plural abbreviations. This is easier to explain with examples of correct use:
- Example: The 1960s were a pivotal time for civil rights
- Example: My bank offers ATMs all over the city
Since words like these are not possessive, they never need an apostrophe.
Another area where writers tend to slip up is when using possessive nouns, especially when it comes to words that end in the letter “s”.
Here’s a breakdown of the correct use of apostrophes when it comes to possessive nouns. It’s important to note that this is based on AP style, but other writing styles may differ. The goal is to stay consistent no matter what style you may be following.
- Singular noun = The possessive form should have an apostrophe followed by an “s” at the end (unless the word ends in the letter “s”)
- Example: That is the cat’s toy
- Singular noun that ends in “s” = the apostrophe goes after the “s,” but a second “s” does not need to follow the apostrophe
- Example: That is our boss’ cat
- This also applies to proper nouns like names
- e.g. That is our boss, Chris’ cat
- Plural noun that ends in “s” = the apostrophe goes after the “s”, but a second “s” does not need to follow the apostrophe
- Example: Those are all the dogs’ bones
- Plural nouns that do not end in “s” = The possessive form should have an apostrophe followed by an “s” at the end
- Example: Those are the children’s crayons
- Joint possession = when referring to something that belongs to more than one person or thing, the apostrophe only needs to go after the second noun
- Example: My mom and dad’s marriage has lasted over 40 years
Avoiding “There’s” for Plural Words
This one is fairly simple but easy to misuse. The word “there’s” should never be used when referring to a plural word. Instead, you should use “there are”.
- Example of correct use: There are ponies in the field
- Example of incorrect use: There’s ponies in the field
- At first this might sound correct, so be sure you consider how it would sound without the contraction; you wouldn’t say “there is ponies”
The Oxford Comma
Something a lot of writers have very strong feelings about is the Oxford comma, AKA the serial comma. Most publications tend to love it or hate it.
If you are unfamiliar, the Oxford comma is the last comma use in a sentence containing a list. It usually precedes a word like “and” or “or”.
Here’s an example of the same sentence with and without an Oxford comma:
- With: He is eating a burger, fries, and a salad
- Without: He is eating a burger, fries and a salad
It’s important to note that Oxford comma use usually comes down to preference. While most newspapers don’t like the Oxford comma, many outlets (including our blog) prefer to use it for clarity. However, the most important thing to remember is to be consistent; stick to the one you prefer or are required to use.
Here’s a breakdown of how and when to use semicolons:
- To connect related clauses
- Example: She loves roses; their scent is her favorite
- In place of a conjunction (instead of words like “or”, “but”, “and”, or “since”)
- Example: They got cake; I had fruit
- As a separator in a list of long or complex items
- Example: We ate turkey with stuffing; yams with maple syrup and marshmallows; and tons of dessert
- Before conjunctive adverbs such as “however”, “moreover”, and “nonetheless”
- Example: I like the way roses look; however, I hate the smell
Note that the word following the semicolon should not be capitalized unless it is a proper noun.
Semicolons are a useful tool but not a necessary one. If you have a hard time with semicolon use, feel free to abandon them altogether. You can always create separate sentences or use a conjunction instead 😉
While there are all kinds of rules for capitalization, these are some of the more common mistakes:
- Improper capitalization of proper nouns
- When speaking about a person or brand, be sure you always capitalize it
- Example: We went on Google to do the search
- Inconsistent title caps
- While title capitalization can vary with style, the most important thing to keep in mind is consistency
- If you aren’t confident, there’s a handy tool at capitalizemytitle.com that will show you the correct use based on what style you are adhering to
Comma placement is another area that can get a little tricky and varies greatly with writing style.
A common rule of thumb is to use a comma whenever you would anticipate a pause when reading out loud. It’s important to be aware of how overusing commas can lead to a run-on sentence. However, we recommend consulting your style book because there are dozens of rules that can govern whether the use of a comma is appropriate.
Slow It Down
The best advice I can give when it comes to grammar is not to rush your writing. Even if you’re against a deadline, taking the time to think out what you’re writing will guarantee fewer errors and mean less back-tracking later.
Always Proof Your Writing
No matter what medium you are writing for, always proof your work to minimize typos. It’s especially helpful if you can have another person or group of people look it over too (it’s especially hard to proof your own writing since you can get overly familiar with it and miss things that might be obvious to others). If it’s not an option to call in reinforcements, try reading your work slowly out loud to catch more mistakes.
Run Content Through Grammarly
Grammarly offers a great online tool you can run documents, web pages, and other content through to catch and correct common spelling and grammar errors. It checks your work in seconds, plus the basic version is free at grammarly.com.
It’s important to keep in mind that content is subjective to begin with, and grammar rules can vary depending on the style you’re working with. However, it is imperative to avoid spelling and grammatical mistakes when producing content in a professional setting. If your article is riddled with mistakes, you will not look credible no matter how great the information is. The insights outlined above should help keep you on the right track. But if you’re ever uncertain, always check your style guide and remember that consistency is key if you want to be a reliable resource.