You’ve started writing. You might even have a blog or are posting regularly on social media about your work. Once you get the words on the page, then comes editing. I’m not here to invoke bad memories of standing at the chalkboard trying to diagram a sentence. I would like to over a short list of common grammar errors along with some usage notes.
Most of us depend on the built-in spelling and grammar checks to catch our mistakes, but the items below can be easily overlooked by most programs. Before we dive into the list, here’s something to keep in mind: You don’t have to be 100% grammatically correct all the time, but avoiding common, fundamental errors can make your writing more professional.
For my list of common grammar errors, let’s start with words that sound the same when spoken, but have different meanings or uses depending on the spelling.
- They’re-Their-There—This one is guaranteed to make any editor cringe. Say all three out loud. Hear how similar they are? No wonder these three words are so often and easily confused in writing. Here’s the breakdown:
- They’re: This is the contraction of “they are.” Example: They’re going to sell out of the strawberry pie before we place our order.
- Their: This indicates ownership. Example: I hope those people enjoy their pie.
- There: This indicates a place or location. Example: I’ll sit over there closer to the pie.
- Your-You’re—Again, try saying the two words out loud. No real difference is there? Here’s what happens when you write:
- Your: This indicates ownership. Example: Give me your pie since I didn’t get any.
- You’re: This is the contraction of “you are.” Example: You’re going to buy a whole pie for me.
- To-Too-Two—These three words sound the same when spoken. While most people use “two” correctly, the other two words can be a little tricky. Here’s how to use them in writing:
- To: This is a preposition, and it has a lot of jobs. I can indicate motion, identify a person or thing affected, identify a relationship, or as an infinitive. Example: He is going to the store.
- Too: This means also or in addition. Example: She is going to the store too.
- Two: This is a number. Again, the easiest of the three, but still worth mentioning. Example: The two kids are at the store.
- Then-Than—While not true homophones, they are frequently misused. I can only imagine these two words get misused due to the similar spelling.
- Then: This indicates an event in time or series of actions. Example: She waited ten minutes, then went home.
- Than: This is used to compare or contrast. Example: She is taller than her brother.
Next up on my list of common grammar errors are words that may sound right, but aren’t depending on usage.
- I-Me: Most of the time, people will use “I” and “me” almost interchangeably. We can usually understand that something like “Me want a cookie” is incorrect, but not understand why something like “Larry took Sara and I to the concert” is incorrect. If the second subject throws you off, try reading the sentence without it: Larry took I to the concert.
- I: We use “I” when the “I” of your sentence is doing the action or feeling the feeling. Example: Sara and I went to a concert with Larry.
- Me: We use “me” when the “me” is the object of the action. Example: Larry took Sara and me to the concert.
- Who-Whom-Whose-Who’s: Which word you use here also depends on usage. My examples below focus on usage in questions, but these words can also be used in statements. The same basic usage rules apply to statements as well.
- Who: Usually used as a subject pronoun. Think of it as replacing he or she in sentences where we are asking or talking about the person taking action. Example: Who let the dogs out? (Bonus points if you sang that and barked afterward.)
- Whom: Usually used as the object pronoun. Think of it as replacing him or her in sentences where we are asking or talking about the person that had the action done to them. Example: Whom did she blame for letting the dogs out?
- Whose: This indicates ownership. Example: Whose dogs did she let out?
- Who’s: This is a contraction for “who is” and sometimes “who has.” Example: Who’s going to let the dogs out?
My Pet Peeves
The last group on my list of common grammar errors fall into a particular category called: My Pet Peeves. These are the things that make me cringe when I see them. The worst part is that I’m guilty of making these errors all the time! I always go back over anything I’ve written and look for these three things.
- Who-That: To be fair, there is a lot of debate over usage for these two words. For the most part, “that” can replace “who” in most situations and not get you called out by overzealous grammar students. Still, here are the quick and dirty rules:
- Who: This generally refers to a person and as mentioned above is the subject pronoun. Example: I didn’t see the girl who wore the coat. Now try reading the sentence with “that” replacing “who.” Example: I didn’t see the girl that wore the red coat. Still makes sense, and isn’t technically wrong per se.
- That: This always refers to things or objects. Example: Your coat isn’t like that red coat we saw at the store. (Note here that you can’t swap “that” and “who.”)
- That: One more quick call out on using “that” before we move on. The word “that” is often a filler word. You don’t need it in most sentences. Do a document search for “that” and read your sentence without “that.” If it makes sense without “that,” then you can delete it.
- Less-Fewer: This is a case where we’ve misused something so much it sounds right to most of us. Still, there are distinctions between these two words. The most basic usage rule is:
- Less: This is used for things that can’t be counted. Example: You can drink less beer.
- Fewer: This is used for things that you can count. Example: You can buy fewer cans of beer.
- Em Dash-Ellipsis: Ok, this one is about the punctuation marks and not words.
- Em Dash: This is what you get when you type two dashes and keep typing. Like this: “type—type.” The em dash is used to show an interruption to the thought. There is some debate around formatting when using the em dash. Some say there should be a space before and after; some say the spaces are not needed. Personally, I skip the spaces. Example: Sara—remind me to tell you about her red coat—went to the concert with me.
- Ellipsis: this is what you get when you type three periods together like this: “type…” Ellipsis is used to show a thought trails off, unfinished. This is also used to indicate that something has been left out in a quote. Example: Sara wore her red coat to…
The list of common grammar errors above can help you catch mistakes your spelling and grammar check may not find for you. Take the time to search your document for these words and punctuation marks to make sure you’ve used them correctly. Eliminating these common errors will make anything you write look and sound more professional.