Written by Chandra Clarke
Writing is one of the most effective forms of communication—but only when the proper words are used and grammar rules are followed. While most people receive a foundational understanding of grammar when they attend school, even those who are knowledgeable about such things as writing, editing, and proofreading can make mistakes in their use of grammar.
This can be attributed to the English language itself, which contains many irregularities. It is often described as one of the toughest languages for non-native speakers and writers to learn.
Sometimes, however, the problem is that the writer never received a proper education in some of the grammar and spelling conventions that are key to effective communication. Also common is that, given everything that people have to remember, these rules are simply forgotten or misapplied.
Whatever the cause, those who have trouble with English grammar are not alone. In fact, there are certain grammatical errors and misused words that are extremely common. Knowing these common mistakes is a great help when you are writing, as you'll know which mistakes you should try to avoid as you put together your rough draft and revise it.
It is particularly important to know which common errors to keep a careful eye out for as you are editing and proofreading. Being able to spot and remove these errors allows for clearer communication and a reduced chance of misunderstandings that can arise when grammatical errors make the meaning of a text unclear.
Here are 10 of the most common grammatical mistakes to watch out for, along with some great resources to help you understand and correct them:
- Among vs. Between: When is it proper to use the preposition among, and when is it correct to use between? This page includes a simple guide to the proper usage of these terms, along with a short quiz to test your understanding.
- Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure: Although assure, ensure, and insure share similar spellings, the words are far from interchangeable; in fact, their meanings are quite different. This resource provides some succinct information on how to use these words properly that can help make writing and proofreading easier. It also features definitions of many other commonly mixed-up words.
- Commas: It seems that many people make mistakes with commas, either inserting them where they don't belong, failing to use them where they're needed, or stringing too many of them together (making an awkward sentence). Here is a good resource outlining the correct ways to use a comma.
- Complement vs. Compliment: It is possible to pay someone a compliment for how well their shoes complement their wardrobe, but you cannot complement someone on how well their shoes compliment their wardrobe. Clear as mud? This link will help you learn how to distinguish complement and compliment, two words with very similar spellings but very different meanings.
- Farther vs. Further: It is easy to use farther when further is actually the proper word, and vice versa. There's a simple fix, however: use farther when referring to literal distance and further when referring to figurative distance, as this guide to commonly confused words demonstrates.
- It's vs. Its (PDF): The possessive pronoun its is often confused with the contraction it's (which combines it and is). Using these two words correctly is challenging even for native English speakers, and this document helps to clarify the situations in which each word is appropriate.
- Lie vs. Lay: Because lie and lay are irregular verbs with similar sounds and meanings (and lay can actually be a form of lie), they are commonly misused, even by many expert writers and editors. This site gives a good overview of the proper uses of lay and lie, including a breakdown of their principal forms, to help writers and speakers use these verbs properly.
- Modifier Problems: Both dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers make writing hard to understand. This is because the relationship of the modifying words to the terms they modify is unclear when they are not used properly. Visit this link to learn more about dangling and misplaced modifiers, how they can make your writing unclear, and how to fix them.
- Semicolons: Although a comma and a coordinating conjunction can be used to connect two independent clauses, a simple semicolon will do the trick, as well. This page explains the proper use of semicolons between two independent clauses, as well as the other correct ways to use a semicolon. It also outlines when to use a colon and semicolon, as many people struggle to understand the difference between the two.
- Then vs. Than: Use then to refer to a sequence in time and than to make comparisons. Use this resource to learn an easy way of keeping all of this straight.
If you remain vigilant in avoiding these 10 common grammatical errors, your writing will become significantly stronger and easier to understand.
Chandra is the founder and former president of Scribendi. She holds a BA in English and an MSc in Space Exploration Studies. Her lifelong devotion to the written word started when she joined The Chatham Daily News as a regional stringer. She then worked as a reporter/photographer for a large chain of weeklies before becoming the managing editor of an independent paper, a post she held for two years before striking out on her own. She pens a weekly humor column and has written dozens of short stories, newspaper articles, and magazine articles. She is an enthusiastic supporter of space exploration and scientific research, and is the author of Be the Change: Saving the World with Citizen Science.
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