Refresh your memory to avoid easy grammar errors

Published 3:48 pm Friday, September 23, 2022

Almost everyone has to do some writing at some point in time, even after they’re done with school. It can range from composing thank you notes to friends, typing up a cover letter for a job resume, or even just expressing yourself on social media. We do it a lot more than we really even think about.

English can be a complicated language. But grammar, while sometimes extremely confusing, can also be a guide in how to express yourself.

That is, if you’re not making a bunch of mistakes.

Incorrect and nonstandard English is totally fine for conversation and social media. Most people can figure out what you’re trying to say even if you decide not to use any punctuation. But if you’re trying to write something a bit more professional, then you should probably try to pay a little more attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

So this week I’m sharing a mini grammar lesson for some of the most common mistakes. We could all use a refresher every now and then, even if we aren’t students anymore.

Before I begin, however, I do want to emphasize that grammar “rules” can be pretty flexible. I remember being told repeatedly in elementary school to never start a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but.” That makes sense for when you’re teaching people the basics of the language – like how conjunctions are used to connect words and clauses – and you don’t want to confuse students by sticking those words at the beginning of a sentence. But no one’s going to give me a bad grade for using “but” at the beginning of this sentence here. Anyone reading this can understand what I mean, right?

The goal with grammar is clarity. You have to make sure what you’re writing makes sense to whoever is reading it, and using good grammar is a good way to start. Here are some common errors and how to clean them up:

Run-on sentences: these can be frustrating to read because it feels like the writer is never going to get to the point. It’s just a bunch of ideas squished together. Run-on sentences are fine when speaking, since the person will usually pause naturally in between each clause. But when you read a sentence like that, you almost feel tired by the end of it because everything just “runs” together.

The key to fixing a run-on sentence is punctuation. Separate each idea with a period (or, if you’d like to be extra fancy, a semicolon or em-dash). You can also just reword the sentence so that it flows better. An example would be changing “I’m cooking pasta tonight it’s my favorite food” to “I’m cooking pasta tonight because it’s my favorite food.”

Subject-verb agreement: if the subject (or main idea) of your sentence is singular, then the verb (the action) should be singular too, and vice versa for plurals. Here’s an incorrect example: “This carton of eggs expire next week.” The subject, carton, is singular but the verb, expire, is in its plural form.

To fix this mistake, you have to make the subject and verb match. You can simply do this by changing the verb to its singular form (“This carton of eggs expires next week”) or reword the subject so that it’s plural (“These eggs expire next week”). It’s an easy mistake to make, but one that usually sounds just strange enough to catch while proofreading.

Misplaced modifiers: we use all sorts of modifiers (like adjectives and adverbs and prepositional phrases) to make our sentences more detailed. But you have to make sure you stick the modifier in the correct spot or it can cause confusion. Here’s an example of a modifier in the wrong spot: “I cooked some vegetables on the stove that looked fresh.” Doesn’t that sound like it’s the stove that “looked fresh” instead of the vegetables? A fresh stove would be weird, wouldn’t it?

To avoid misplacing your modifiers, make sure they’re next to the word they’re supposed to be describing. A better sentence would be “I cooked some fresh-looking vegetables on the stove.”

Apostrophes: the little punctuation mark known as the apostrophe can be confusing because it serves more than one purpose in English. Firstly, apostrophes are important for contractions like “isn’t” or “we’d” or “I’ve.” The apostrophe is like a placeholder for the missing letters so you don’t have to type them all out.

But apostrophes are also used for possessive nouns. An example would be “The grocery store’s peppers are bigger than the ones I picked from my garden.” We’re talking specifically about the peppers from the grocery store in that sentence, so you’d need to use the apostrophe to show the possession.

What makes English extra confusing though is that there are exceptions. A frustrating apostrophe exception is “it’s” and “its.” The version with the apostrophe always is short for “it is.” The one without is the possessive version. An easy way to figure out which version to use is to substitute “it is” in the sentence and see if it makes sense.

Lastly, make sure you don’t mix up “me” and “I” in a sentence. It would be incorrect to say “My brother and me like Mom’s cooking the best” or “That sounds good to my friend and I.”

How do you know which pronoun to use? Well, “I” is a subjective pronoun and “me” is an objective pronoun. But if you can’t remember the difference between those two kinds of pronouns, simply cut out the other person in the sentence and see how it sounds. Both sentences now sound wrong: “Me like Mom’s cooking the best” and “That sounds good to I.”

These are only a few examples of common grammar errors that we all make from time to time. The next time you need to write something that looks professional and isn’t confusing, make sure to keep your eyes peeled to fix any mistakes. Proofreading helps! And don’t be so hard on yourself if you catch a few errors. We’re only human, after all!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.