We know that English writing rules aren’t easy to remember, especially when you take into account different style preferences, the fluidity of language and the practically thousands of exceptions to the rules.
But don’t get too overwhelmed—some writing mistakes are pretty common and chances are they are the same ones you struggle with the most. We’ve compiled a beginner’s list of these common errors in English writing to give you a place to start. Be aware of these in your own writing and you are on your way to cleaner, better pieces.
Which versus That
To many, these words seem interchangeable, but in reality their purposes are different. Which sets off a phrase or clause that is not vital to the meaning of a sentence. It is always preceded by a comma, and if the clause ends before the sentence does, the clause ends in a comma. That introduces a phrase or clause that is vital to the meaning of a sentence and does not require any commas.
Physics, which is a harder subject than I expected it to be, really is the key to understanding how the world works.
The subject that is harder to understand than I expected it to be is physics.
I.e. versus E.g.
Both i.e. and e.g. are used to introduce additional information, but just as with which and that, they introduce different types of information. Short for id est in Latin, i.e. stands for “that is” or “in other words”; any information that follows i.e. should be a restatement of the information that preceded it. On the other hand, e.g. (short for exempli gratia, also Latin) stands for “for example”; any information that follows e.g. should be examples or illustrations of the information that preceded it. Both are immediately followed by a comma.
I love to eat fruit—i.e., fruit makes me very happy when I eat it.
I love to eat fruit—e.g., apples, strawberries, bananas, and oranges.
Could of/Would of/Should of
All of these should be could have/would have/should have; spoken English tends to play tricks on the ear because of how fast people talk and this often makes the have sound like of. Be careful when you write, however, as the correct word is always have.
Transposables and Homonyms
Transposables are words that are formed of the same letters in different orders—for example, form/from, causal/casual, and ate/eat. These are particularly dangerous because an electronic spell checker will not catch these mistakes, as there is no spelling error, but “the gift is from Cherie” makes a lot more sense than “the gift is form Cherie.” To catch these, read your writing slowly, actually paying attention to each word as it is written.
Homonyms are words that are spelled differently and have different meanings, but that are pronounced exactly the same—for example, their/there/they’re and two/to/too. Once again, these are writing errors that an electronic spell checker will not catch, but that your reader most likely will. As you are writing and revising, pay attention to each individual word, verifying its meaning and spelling, to ensure that you’ve used the correct spelling.
The concept of parallelism in writing is significant where there are more than one phrase, clause or item, and is a style issue that allows readers to take in information in a balanced rhythm. In essence, every item in a list should be in the same tense, in the same form and in the same context.
I like to go to the mall, to walk by the beach and to sleep in the park.
Not: I like to go to the mall, walking by the beach and when I can sleep in the park.
My favorite things to do include playing baseball, watching movies and playing the guitar.
Not: My favorite things to do include baseball, watching movies and the guitar.
The key to commas is consistency! For example, some style guides recommend the serial comma (that is, the comma after the second item in a list of three items) and some don’t. If you are not following a specific style guide, your goal should be to be consistent—make sure to always use the serial comma or to never use it, but don’t use it in some places and not in others.
Commas should always set off introductory phrases, clauses and words: Contrary to common misconceptions, I prefer lattes to frappuccinos.
Commas should never be used as the sole device to join two complete sentences (an error known as a comma splice):Julie hates all kinds of coffee, but I like all kinds of coffee—NOT: Julie hates all kinds of coffee, I like all kinds of coffee.
A sentence is only a sentence when there is a subject (a doer) and a predicate (what is done). If one of these items is missing, you have a fragment. If you have too many doers or too many actions—or if several doers and their actions are joined incorrectly—you have a run-on. The best way to catch either of these is to read your writing out loud; it is much easier to identify fragments and run-ons when they are vocalized.
Fragment: Even in the light of day, running into something you’ve never seen before.
Fix: Even in the light of day, running into something you’ve never seen before can be frightening.
Run-on: Even in the light of day, running into something you’ve never seen before can be frightening, unidentified objects tend to make the imagination run wild.
Fix: Even in the light of day, running into something you’ve never seen before can be frightening. Unidentified objects tend to make the imagination run wild.
Apostrophes are used to indicate possession and contractions—do not use them to form plural words. When forming the possessive case of a plural word, make sure that the apostrophe is in its proper place (after the –s).
Possessive: I like the student’s paper.
Plural Possessive: I like the students’ papers.
Contractions: I don’t like the papers the students wrote.
An exception to this rule is its and it’s; this is one you’ll just have to remember, but it’s with an apostrophe always means “it has” or “it is” and is never possessive.
Modifiers are words, clauses and phrases that provide additional information to the sentence. Sometimes, modifiers are placed in spots that make it unclear what they are referring to or they end up not modifying anything in the sentence at all!