The web is a frustrating place for a grammar nerd. Irritating mistakes—such as “should of,” shudder—seem to be everywhere I look. There are days I’d like to take a proofreading pen to the internet.
Don’t be one of the writers that makes me want to reach for my red pen! Make sure you’re not falling into common grammar traps. Not only will you make grammar nerds happy (there are hundreds of us, at least!), but your writing will also sound more professional and authoritative. Here are 6 common mistakes to avoid.
Mixing Up “It’s”/”Its,” “You’re”/“Your,” and “They’re”/“Their”
“It’s” is a contraction of “it is.” “Its” is the possessive of the pronoun “it.” Use “it’s” for phrases such as “It’s raining” or “It’s cold” (“It is cold”) but “its” if you’re talking about something it owns.
Similarly, “you’re” is a contraction of “you are” and “your” is the possessive of “you.” “They’re” (“they are”) and “their” (possessive of “they”) work the same way.
Using Apostrophes Incorrectly
Apostrophes are for possessives and contractions, not (typically) for plurals. In most cases, you can just stick an s or es on the end of a word you want to make plural. Some exceptions: mice, species, deer, and other irregular plurals or collective nouns.
You also use an apostrophe to indicate where you have taken out a few letters or an entire word, as in “they’re” (“they are”), “o’clock” (“of the clock”), and similar cases.
It gets tricky when you’re making an abbreviation or number plural. Whether to use apostrophes when pluralizing “CD,” “DVD,” “CEO,” “1980,” “1990,” and the like (“CD’s,” “1980’s”) is ultimately up to the style guide of your particular publication—or your own preference. Including apostrophes when pluralizing in these cases used to be standard, but it has fallen out of favor with major publications in recent years.
Misusing “Between” and “Among”
Use “between” if you’re talking about two people or things sharing something (“that’s between you and me”) or if you’re talking about a choice with two options (“between the steak and the fish”). If you’re talking about a group or an indistinct number, use “among”: “among the team members” or “among the Democratic candidates.”
Hyphenating Adverbial Phrases
“Brightly colored.” “Richly textured.” These types of adverbial clauses don’t need hyphens to connect the adverb to its adjective. That’s an adverb’s job: an adverb by definition modifies or intensifies a word near it. The two words already constitute a coherent phrase. Even if that entire adverbial phrase modifies another word (as in “brightly colored illustrations”), you’re good to go without a hyphen.
You do need a hyphen when you are using a compound adjective, e.g., “sixth-grade math,” “red-nosed reindeer.”
Misusing Words and Phrases
Remember Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”? Make sure that what you think a word means is actually what it means, and that you’re using it in the correct context. It’s particularly easy to interchange homonyms (words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have distinct meanings). Watch out for problematic pairs such as “vain” and “vein,” “extract” and “exact,” “a lot” and “allot” (never “alot”!), “accept” and “except.”
“Effect”/“affect” and “lay/”lie” are two pairs of next-level homonyms because they actually do have very similar meanings. “Effect” is typically a noun meaning “result,” and “affect” is typically a verb meaning “to act on.” Here’s where things get complicated, though: “effect” can be a verb when it takes an object (“effect change”). “Affect” is also a noun in psychology (it’s the outward appearance of someone’s mood, e.g., “a depressed affect”). “Lay” and “lie” are both verbs; the difference is that “lay” takes a direct object (“I lay the book on the table”) and “lie” does not (“I lie down on the bed”).
Misusing idioms—such as using “intensive purposes” for “intents and purposes” or “sneak peak” for “sneak peek”—really undermines your authority as a writer. Commit these idioms to memory, or double-check their meanings before using them.
Being Overly Rigid
Language is constantly evolving, which means grammar—the set of rules we use to make sense of language—is too. Just as new words are accepted into our vocabulary (did you know “webisode,” “vape,” and “crowdfunded” are now in the OED?), new grammar conventions are too. The singular “they” is nearing the tipping point of acceptability, as is the practice of ending sentences with prepositions.
It’s also important to remember that we generally speak much differently than we write. The most engaging content frequently adopts a more conversational, casual tone like that of natural speech, rather than following grammar rules to the letter. Being too strict about grammar rules can lead to writing that’s stiff, overly formal, and convoluted. Going out of your way to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition can lead to hilariously awkward results, as in the quotation famously attributed to Churchill: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” We’ve long been told not to begin sentences with conjunctions (“and,” “but”), but we do it all the time for emphasis. Try to emulate your natural speech patterns in your writing. I’ve broken many of the rules in this piece alone!
Of course, you need to know the rules before you can break them effectively. And—see what I did there?—while some rules are breakable, others (such as it’s/its) are definitely not.
Does your grammar need some work? I highly recommend the Grammar Girl website and podcast for more information. Grammar Girl, a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty, presents useful grammar tips in a conversational way—and with plenty of mnemonics to help them stick in your brain. Grammarist is another great resource for grammar help. Spend some time brushing up on your grammar, and soon you’ll be itching to grab your own proofreading pen!