We’ve said it before, but good writing is more important than perfect grammar. In fact, sometimes good writing means breaking the rules of grammar to get your point across more effectively or tell your story more vividly.
That said, grammar is still important. Bad grammar can be jarring. Too many grammar errors can take attention away from your writing. If you want to write clearly and concisely, that means learning some basic grammatical rules.
Of course, there are just so many of those rules. We recommend a few tools that can make your job easier: the Grammarly plugin and the Hemingway Editor. Dreyer’s English is also a fantastic book to help you get started. Beyond that, below are five common grammar mistakes even experienced writers often make.
1. Dangling modifiers
A dangling modifier is when the phrase you’re using to describe something doesn’t modify the noun you want it to modify. For example:
After meowing incessantly, Sam fed the cat.
Clearly, it’s the cat that’s doing the meowing here. However, the way the sentence is structured makes it seem like Sam’s the one meowing. “After meowing incessantly” is dangling there, not really modifying what it’s meant to modify: Sam’s poor, old hungry cat. Let’s give this sentence a makeover:
Sam fed the cat after it started meowing incessantly.
After it started meowing incessantly, Sam fed the cat.
Now it’s clear that the cat is the one doing the incessant meowing, not Sam.
2. Not adding a comma between independent clauses
An independent clause is basically a sentence that can stand on its own, and it’s joined by a conjunction like “and,” “but,” “for,” “or,” “nor,” “so,” or “yet” along with another independent clause. When you use two independent clauses in a sentence, make sure to add a comma before the conjunction. For example:
Incorrect: I wanted to make the bed but my dog jumped on it.
Correct: I wanted to make the bed, but my dog jumped on it.
On the flip side, you don’t need a comma if the two clauses aren’t independent. In other words, if your conjunction isn’t joining two full sentences, you can probably skip the comma. For example:
I’m sorry to see you go, but excited for your new adventure.
“Excited for your new adventure” isn’t a full sentence, so skip the comma – or add an “I’m” before excited to make it a full independent clause.
3. Verb tense errors
Some of the most common grammar errors are verb tense errors. This happens when you use inconsistent verb tenses within the same sentence. For example:
We would drive to the store, and I bought chocolate milk.
In this case, “drive” is present tense while “bought” is past tense. Here’s how the sentence reads when these verbs are consistent:
We would drive to the store, and I would buy chocolate milk.
We drove to the store, and I bought chocolate milk.
Verb tense errors are easy to spot when they’re within the same sentence (like the example above). They can be trickier when you’re telling a story and get lost in the tense. For example:
When I was a kid, my mom and I went to the grocery store every Sunday. We would drive to the store, and I bought chocolate milk.
This reads a bit more clearly:
“When I was a kid, my mom and I would go to the grocery store every Sunday. We would drive to the store, and I would buy chocolate milk.”
4. Faulty parallelism
Faulty parallelism is also called parallel structure error or sentence structure error. Whatever you want to call it, it’s when items in a list take on different grammatical forms. For example:
My evening routine includes a shower, watching TV, and dinner.
In this sentence, shower and dinner are nouns, while “watching TV” is a verb. When you list items in a sentence, make sure they’re all the same form:
My evening routine includes taking a shower, watching TV, and eating dinner.
My evening routine includes a shower, TV, and dinner.
With each item on the list in a similar grammatical form, the sentence is much easier to read.
5. Passive voice
Passive voice can be a controversial common grammar mistake because, in some cases, it isn’t a grammar error at all. Sometimes passive voice makes sense! But in many cases, it can slow down or weaken your writing.
With passive voice, the subject of a sentence is in the wrong spot – it receives the action of a verb. It’s kind of hard to explain, so perhaps the best way is through an example:
The ball was kicked by Todd. (passive) VS. Todd kicked the ball. (active)
The report will be written by one of us. (passive) VS. One of us will write the report. (active)
You can see how the active version is much more direct and concise. If your sentence is hard to read, there’s a good chance you’ve written it in passive voice. That said, passive voice can come in handy, too. It’s useful when you intend to create distance between the subject and the verb – when you want to be polite, for example:
The soup was left out overnight, and now it’s spoiled.
This sounds a lot less accusatory than, “You left out the soup overnight, and now it’s spoiled.”
Here’s an explanation of three instances in which passive voice is the better choice: when the subject is unknown, irrelevant, or obvious; when the subject is less important than the action; and when the recipient is the main topic.
Passive voice is a good example of how good writing sometimes breaks the rules. But in order to break those rules, you first have to learn them. Grammar is rich, complex, and – let’s be honest – often really confusing. You’ll probably never learn every single rule. A basic grasp of some of the most common grammar errors, however, will go a long way toward improving your writing.