You could be writing the greatest blog post, web copy, or report ever, and then — oops! — You make a dumb mistake that stops your readers in their tracks, and may even make them doubt your credibility. By avoiding these top grammar and usage errors, you can keep your readers, engaged in what you write, rather than focusing on your mistakes. The examples below incorporate zombies to remind you that reducing errors can help bring your writing back from the dead.
If you are too lazy to read the rest of this post, or are a grammar master, have a laugh with Weird Al:
1. They’re / their / there
Homophone problems are surprisingly common. Sometimes they are simply momentary brain glitches made by people who know the correct way to spell the word that they mangled. This happens most often when people are rushing, and the antidote is simply to proofread all of your work. Some people, though, need a refresher on the differences between these words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings:
Example: Zombies! They’re coming down the street. Run!
Explanation: They’re is a contraction meaning “they are.”
Example: Their skin is falling off of their bodies! Ewwww!
Explanation: Their is a possessive pronoun, like “your” or “my.” It indicates something that they (in this case, the zombies) have.
Example: They are heading toward the house. They better not go in there!
Explanation: There is an adverb, indicating place.
2. Your / You’re and It’s / Its
Confusion about “your” versus “you’re” and “its” versus “it’s” may be the most common homophone errors. Consider the following examples:
Example: Mr. Zombie, your face is disintegrating!
Explanation: Your is a possessive pronoun. It answers the question “Whose face is disintegrating?”
Example: You’re smelly; Mr. Zombie, but I still like you.
Explanation: You’re is a contraction that means, “you are.”
Example: Oh no! The zombie is sinking its teeth into my arm!
Explanation: Its means “belonging to it.” Here, the teeth belong to the zombie. If the zombie were still a real, living person, you would use “his” or “hers” instead of “its” because “its” is used mostly for non-living objects.
Example: It’s time for us to send the zombies back where they belong.
Explanation: It’s is a contraction meaning “it is” or “it has.”
3. Lose / loose
Using “loose” instead of “lose” or, even worse, “looser” instead of “loser” is the most grating of the homophone errors.
Example: If you fight a zombie all by yourself, you will lose.
Explanation: Lose is the opposite of “win.”
Example: The zombie’s eyeball is getting loose.
Explanation: Loose means “not tight” or “not firmly attached.”
Example: That suit is looser on the zombie now than it was when he was alive.
Explanation: Looser indicates that the zombie has gotten smaller after death, making his suit roomier.
Example: You may be a loser, but at least you are not a zombie.
Explanation: Loser is an all-purpose insult, often misspelled as “looser” in online flame wars.
4. Comma splice
Some common grammar errors arise when people are not sure about sentence structure. The most important thing to remember is that an independent clause is a piece of a sentence that could stand alone as its own sentence.
Example: The zombies are smelly, and they walk funny.
Explanation: The zombies are smelly could stand alone as its own sentence. They walk funny could also stand-alone. Therefore, both are independent clauses.
When you put two independent clauses together in one sentence with only a comma separating them, that is the error known as comma splice:
Incorrect Example: The zombies are smelly, they walk funny.
The Fix: Replace the comma with a semicolon, add a conjunction, such as “and” or “or” before the comma, or split the sentence into two sentences.
Also Correct: The zombies are smelly; they walk funny. Also correct: The zombies are smelly, and they walk funny. This is correct too: The zombies are smelly. They walk funny.
5. Run-on sentence
The cousin of the comma error is the run-on-sentence error. It, too, is a wrong way to join two independent clauses. A run-on sentence omits both the required comma and the required conjunction.
Contrary to popular belief, a long sentence, even one whose subject matter wanders all over the place, is not necessarily a run-on sentence. Only the improper joining of independent clauses can make a sentence a run on.
Example Run-on: The zombies are smelly they walk funny.
The Fix: Apply any of the corrections described above for comma splices.
6. Dangling modifiers
Dangling modifiers are a more subtle type of error than the ones discussed above, but just as people don’t want to see a dangling arm in the mouth of a zombie, discerning readers don’t want to see a modifier dangling in the front of your sentence.
Modifiers dangle when they refer to something other than the subject of your sentence:
Incorrect Example: Being hungry, the fresh brains were a wonderful treat for the zombie.
The Fix: To untangle dangling modifiers, first ask who or what is the subject of the sentence — the person or thing that is performing the action of the sentence. Here, “the fresh brains” are the subject. The modifier dangles because it is the zombie, not the brains, who is hungry. Make sure the modifier is next to the subject that it modifies.
Correct Example: Being hungry, the zombie found the fresh brains were a wonderful treat.
By avoiding these common errors, you can help keep the critics at bay. Perfection is not the goal and is probably impossible to achieve. Aim for incremental improvement. Your readers will thank you, and your writing will rise from the ranks of the living dead to become truly alive.
What are some of your common mistakes when writing? Share them in the comments!