Careless grammatical errors can have a considerable effect on your credibility as a writer. Even simple mix-ups look sloppy and are confusing to readers. They imply that you were too lazy or careless to proofread your content. Some people may assume there is a lack in your education, therefore calling your hard work and research into question. And if social media has taught us anything, it’s that internet trolls love nothing more than to undermine your opinion by picking apart your grammar.
Find a middle ground between appreciating the rules of grammar and learning where intentionally breaking some can be really effective with readers. Just don’t make the following transgressions (at least not accidentally).
1. Subject/Verb Disagreement
Thankfully, this isn’t a terribly common mistake among most writers, but it can pop up when intervening phrases compound a sentence. For example, “The keynote speaker, as well as his colleagues, was welcoming to our group.” Similarly, words like each, either, and everyone can trip up writers, as can collective nouns like band or team. However, when this rule is intentionally broken, it can hold weight. A great example is Aibileen Clark’s endearing mantra in The Help: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
2. Willy-Nilly Capitalization
A good portion of my workday is spent editing and proofreading, and nothing irks me more than the random capitalization of common nouns. If your attempt is to impart stress on a word or phrase in a typed document, use italics or bold font. If you’re writing something by hand, underline it. Otherwise, capitalizing Words that don’t actually warrant it is just confusing for Readers.
3. Double Negatives
This is a grammar blunder that is often more common (and cringe-worthy) when we hear it, rather than read it. It’s also less likely to appear in professional writing but is pretty rampant on social media. However, before you join the Grammar Police and begin citing contributors’ mistakes, remember that many foreign languages only use double negatives when expressing negation. So for speakers and writers speaking English as a second language, understanding our way can be tricky.
Additionally, intentionally breaking this rule can have an interesting effect on content. Sometimes a double negative can produce a positive result: “I don’t not like your brother…” or “We can’t just sit back and do nothing!” OxfordDictionaries.com explains that in these circumstances, “the double negative creates a nuance of meaning that would not be present had the writer just made an affirmative statement.” This rhetorical technique can be very useful for writers when trying to create a certain mood.
4. Homophone Mix-Ups
This is a very common error, even among seasoned writers. When the creative juices are flowing and you find yourself writing as you would speak, it’s easy to put down the incorrect form of oft-used words like there, your, to, and it’s. A great rule of thumb is to do a simple document search when you finish a project. Press Ctrl+F or Command+F, and make sure you’re using your homophones correctly. Unless you love groan-worthy puns, that is. Then you can have a bawl! (I’m sorry.)
5. Run-On Sentences
Another grammar faux pas more common to social media, run-on sentences can be very confusing for readers. They’re not entirely uncommon in professional writing (did you catch that double negative there?); we just learn to hide them better with punctuation.
Personally, when I edit a piece by a writer who can craft a 50+ word sentence without breaking a sweat, I’m impressed. And throughout literature there have been some extraordinary run-ons. Two famous examples are Jonathan Coe’s 13,995 word sentence in The Rotter’s Club and William Faulkner’s 1,288 word sentence in Absalom, Absalom!
6. Stiff Sentence Fragments
The equally frustrating opposite to run-on sentences, sentence fragments can create a staccato-like rhythm in readers’ minds. Sometimes this can be very powerful, giving weight to the words or developing a character’s tone. When used unintentionally, however, it feels awkward. Our natural way of speaking involves pauses and breaks, wherein our brains are crafting new material. Writing in short, overly simplistic sentences can appear poorly edited and even childish.
7. Too Much Passive Voice
Readers respond best to clear, concise sentences. When the subject of a sentence is performing the action, the voice is “active.” When the subject is receiving the action, it is “passive.” Generally speaking, writers should aim for active voice most of the time. But even though passive voice can often lead to vague, meandering sentences, it is still very useful. Where active voice is easily understood and to-the-point, passive voice often sounds more academic or sophisticated. Knowing when to use each requires practice and nuance, but once mastered will open many new doors within your writing.
8. The Oxford Comma
Perhaps the most polarizing (and my favorite) piece of English grammar is the Oxford, or serial, comma. Simply put, the Oxford comma is punctuation used directly in front of a word like “and” or “or” in a series of three or more items. Many academic style guides insist on the use of an Oxford comma, while most journalistic guides do not. Often it is left up to the writer, but omitting it can result in some strange misinterpretations. For example, if I said, “The lasagna is made with ground beef, tomato sauce, macaroni and cheese,” the lack of a comma after “macaroni” may lead you to believe that my recipe utilizes a boxed meal, rather than lasagna noodles and cheese.
And for us grammar nerds who distrust those trying to discard the Oxford comma, last year offered some sweet vindication. A $10 million labor dispute erupted in Maine over the lack of a serial comma in a statute about overtime pay. The lawyer representing about 75 dairy drivers won his case because one, little, missing comma rendered the law unclear. See? Your grammar school English teacher wasn’t lying when she told you that punctuation matters.
We get it, English is confusing. There’s a seemingly infinite number of rules and guidelines to keep track of, and a squadron of angry proofreaders ready to chew you down every time you make a mistake. On top of that, the language changes a little every day. Binge-watch, YOLO, and hot mess have all officially been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. What can we say? Times are weird. Stick to the main rules and stay consistent with your usage. And more than anything else, proofread before you publish!