Make these mistakes in a query letter, and your work might never see publication. Make these mistakes in a blog often enough, and your readers will find another similar blog that doesn’t make them cringe.
Mistake #1: Your/You’re
This mistake is why I can only take Facebook in small doses some days.
Add to the list it’s/its.
Please also add their/there/they’re.
This is a ridiculously simple mistake to avoid. Just stop and ask whether your sentence requires a possessive or a contraction.
Your is possessive, implying ownership: “I love your blog.”
You’re is a contraction of you are. The apostrophe indicates that you and are smashed together to make them shorter and smoother to say: “You’re giving me a headache with all this grammar talk.”
Their = possessive
There = a place (“I’ve been there”) or a pronoun (“There is no way I’m jumping off that cliff.”)
They’re = they are
It’s = it is (or it has)
Its = possessive
Mistake #2: Leaving Out a Serial Comma
A serial comma involves placing a comma after every item in a series: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate, and cranberries.”
You could write this without the serial comma: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate and cranberries.”
Serial commas aren’t mandatory, but they are recommended by most major style guides for a very simple reason—they eliminate the risk of being unintentionally funny.
“A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking and birthing babies.”
Is it just me, or does that sound like she’s serving up roast baby for dinner?
But add a serial comma and we have “A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking, and birthing babies.” Now we have a clear tribute to mothers rather than cannibalism.
The only thing worse than being boring is being unintentionally funny. Once people laugh at you, that’s all they’re going to remember about your post. At least if you’re boring, they forget about you.
I live by the better safe than sorry rule. If I always use a serial comma, I never run the risk of leaving it out when I should have put it in.
Mistake #3: Could of, Should of, Would of
“I could of finished that 10 oz. steak if I wanted to, but I’m watching my waistline.”
This mistake crops up when people write the same way they speak. When we speak, we often slur could’ve (the contraction of could have) so that it sounds like could of.
Of can be used correctly in many different ways. This isn’t one of them. You might be able to get away with it in speech, but not in your writing.
Mistake #4: To/Too/Two
I know. This one just seems like the first English speakers were being mean. Not only do these all sound the same, but they’re only one letter different from each other.
Two is a number: “If you already have one chocolate bar and I give you mine, then you have two chocolate bars and I’m going to be asking you to share.” Hold up two fingers. They form half a W. To and too don’t have that shape in them. They are not numbers. If that doesn’t work for you, remember that two (as a number) starts the same way as twins.
Too is an adverb expressing the idea of “excessively,” “also,” or “as well”: “This word has one too many o‘s in it.”
“I went to church on Sunday.” (preposition)
“I want to eat your chocolate.” (infinitive)
Mistake #5: Lack of Parallelism in Lists
Parallelism in a list makes your sentences easier for your reader to understand.
“To contribute to Easter dinner, I peeled two potatoes, three yams, and baked a pie.”
Your reader will understand this sentence, but it will feel awkward. And grammar Nazis will snicker at you behind their hands.
Take the sentence apart, and you’ll see the problem.
To contribute to Easter dinner, I . . .
- peeled two potatoes
- three yams
- baked a pie.
You wouldn’t say, “To contribute to Easter dinner, I two yams.” At least I hope you wouldn’t. You need to add a verb in front of “three yams” to make this sentence parallel. “Peeled,” “washed,” “chopped,” or “mashed” would all be correct.
Mistake #6: Dangling Participles
A dangling participle is a word or phrase that’s placed so it modifies the wrong thing. This is another one where your readers will find you extremely funny for all the wrong reasons.
“Walking down the road, the house came into view.”
A house taking a walk? I’d buy tickets to see that.
“Featuring an ensuite hot tub and extra fluffy pillows, we highly recommend this hotel for honeymooning couples.”
The mental image of people with hot tubs where their bellies should be and pillows for arms . . . I probably won’t stop laughing long enough to read the rest of what you’ve written.
“After rotting in the back of the fridge for three months, my husband cleaned out his forgotten leftovers.”
Based on this sentence, I need to take my husband to a doctor to find out why he’s rotting.
What are some grammar gaffes that drive you nuts?
Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)
All three books are available in print and ebook forms.
(This was a replay of a post I wrote originally for Girls With Pens and which first appeared on May 9, 2011. Because it’s still one of my favorites, I decided to share it with you here today.)