6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers

Make these mistakes in a query letter, and your work might never see print publication. Make these mistakes in a blog often enough, and your readers will find another similar blog that doesn’t make them cringe.

Mistake #1: Your/You’re

Grammar mistakesThis mistake is why I can only take Facebook in small doses.

Add to this list it’s/its.
Please also add their/there/they’re.

This is a ridiculously simple mistake to avoid. Just stop and ask whether your sentence requires a possessive or a contraction.

Your is possessive, implying ownership: “I love your blog.”
You’re is a contraction of you are. The apostrophe indicates that you’ve (you have) smashed two words together to make them shorter and smoother to say: “You’re giving me a headache with all this grammar talk.”

Their = possessive
There = a place (“I’ve been there”) or a pronoun (“There is no way I’m jumping off that cliff.”)
They’re = they are

It’s = it is (or it has)
Its = possessive

Mistake #2: Leaving Out a Serial Comma

A serial comma involves placing a comma after every item in a series: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate, and cranberries.”

You could write this without the serial comma: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate and cranberries.”

Serial commas aren’t mandatory, but they are recommended by most major style guides for a very simple reason—they eliminate the risk of being unintentionally funny.

“A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking and birthing babies.”
Is it just me, or does that sound like she’s serving up roast baby for dinner?

But add a serial comma and we have “A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking, and birthing babies.” Now we have a clear tribute to mothers rather than cannibalism.

The only thing worse than being boring is being unintentionally funny. Once people laugh at you, that’s all they’re going to remember about your post. At least if you’re boring, they forget about you.

I live by the better safe than sorry rule. If I always use a serial comma, I never run the risk of leaving it out when I should have put it in.

Mistake #3: Could of, Should of, Would of

“I could of finished that 10 oz. steak if I wanted to, but I’m watching my waistline.”

This mistake crops up when people write the same way they speak. When we speak, we often slur could’ve (the contraction of could have) so that it sounds like could of.

Of can be used correctly in many different ways. This isn’t one of them. You might be able to get away with it in speech, but not in your writing.

Mistake #4: To/Too/Two

I know. This one just seems like the first English speakers were being mean. Not only do these all sound the same, but they’re only one letter different from each other.

Two is a number: “If you already have one chocolate bar and I give you mine, then you have two chocolate bars and I’m going to be asking you to share.” Hold up two fingers. They form half a W. To and too don’t have that shape in them. They are not numbers. If that doesn’t work for you, remember that two (as a number) starts the same way as twins.

Too is an adverb expressing the idea of “excessively,” “also,” or “as well”: “This word has one too many o‘s in it.”

To is a preposition. It’s used to begin a prepositional phrase or an infinitive. The best way to remember to is to place it where neither two nor too will work.

“I went to church on Sunday.” (preposition)

“I want to eat your chocolate.” (infinitive)

Mistake #5: Lack of Parallelism in Lists

Parallelism in a list makes your sentences easier for your reader to understand.

“To contribute to Easter dinner, I peeled two potatoes, three yams, and baked a pie.”

Your reader will understand this sentence, but it will feel awkward. And grammar Nazis will snicker at you behind their hands.

Take the sentence apart, and you’ll see the problem.

To contribute to Easter dinner, I . . .

  • peeled two potatoes
  • three yams
  • baked a pie.

You wouldn’t say, “To contribute to Easter dinner, I two yams.” At least I hope you wouldn’t. You need to add a verb in front of “three yams” to make this sentence parallel. “Peeled,” “washed,” “chopped,” or “mashed” would all be correct.

Mistake #6: Dangling Participles

A dangling participle is a word or phrase that’s placed so that it modifies the wrong thing. This is another one where your readers will find you extremely funny for all the wrong reasons.

“Walking down the road, the house came into view.”
A house taking a walk? I’d buy tickets to see that.

“Featuring an ensuite hot tub and extra fluffy pillows, we highly recommend this hotel for honeymooning couples.”
The mental image of people with hot tubs where their bellies should be and pillows for arms . . . I probably won’t stop laughing long enough to read the rest of what you’ve written.

“After rotting in the back of the fridge for three months, my husband cleaned out his forgotten leftovers.”
Based on this sentence, I need to take my husband to a doctor to find out why he’s rotting.

Check out our Resources for Writers page for three entertaining, readable grammar guides we recommend. For more grammar tips from Girls With Pens, check out the post Homonym Hell on commonly misused words.

What are some grammar gaffes that drive you nuts?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


19 comments on “6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers

  1. Oh, you’ve nailed me with #5 and #6, parallelism and dangling participles. And I never notice what I’ve done until I hit send/publish/enter. My other weakness is beginning sentences with a conjunction, but you probably already noticed that. 🙂

    • I’ve been unintentionally funny with dangling modifiers before too. But I think it’s perfectly acceptable under certain circumstances to start a sentence with a conjunction 🙂

  2. Way back in public school–and yes, I can remember that far back (tee hee)–we had an entire sheet of dangling participles. What was funnier than the pictures they formed in my mind was the fact that so many of my classmates didn’t get it.

    I especially like your comments about serial commas. It is definitely better safe than sorry in this area–and in most others as well.

    And might I add my own pet grammar peeve…There seems to be a lack of understanding out there that “mom” isn’t capitalized when it’s preceded by “my, their, etc” but it is when used as a name. (i.e., “I told my mom I love her” as opposed to “I told Mom I love her.”)

  3. Haha–well your great sense of humour certainly makes grammar a lot more interesting than it was back in the day.

    #5 was one I hadn’t thought of before, and you have FINALLY answered my serial comma conundrum–thank you very much. 🙂

  4. I love this post! I’m a big fan of the serial comma, but why has it disappeared lately? Is that yet another new rule they teach in grammar along with the one-space format following the end of a sentence? I’m a two space girl.

  5. I agree so strongly on serial commas, and it bugs me to no end that AP style is *no* serial commas. It just looks wrong to me!

    My pet peeves are probably not considered grammatical, but simply poor use of language: “I could care less” makes me insane. If you could care less, then you care! (I’ll skip the then/than misusage).

    Also, the use of “literal” in a clearly figurative sense. If you are standing here saying to me, “It literally blew my mind!” then, no, it didn’t! It figuratively blew your mind! The only way it could have literally blown your mind is if you’re speaking from the grave.

    I was going to sign off here, but I remembered one more: lose/loose. Aggghhh! I could definitely do this all day instead of getting down to writing. 🙂

    Fun post!

  6. Actually, the lack of a serial comma (aka the Oxford comma) isn’t a mistake, sadly—it’s proper grammar, according to some grammar handbooks, including the AP Stylebook. The “mistake” comes when you’re inconsistent about if you’re including it or not.

    “Could/should/would of” can be acceptable if in dialogue, or an inherent part of a first person voice, but it can be a tough sell. You have to know what you’re doing to be able to get away with it, and usually by the time you know what you’re doing, you don’t want to use ’em.

    Also, a note on that “could care less”/”couldn’t care less”, it’s effectively an idiom. I don’t particularly care for it, myself, but it’s generally understood by native speakers. Why is all soda called “Coke” in some regions? (A friend’s Albanian husband had a hilarious commentary on how violent we USians are after he learned the “break a leg” idiom.)

    Another major error that makes me want to rip my hair out—but publishers are doing it, too—are the missing em-dashes. I’m not sure if they’re substituting en-dashes or hyphens, but some people these days don’t even use em-dashes when they’re supposed to. 😥

  7. Pingback: Homonym Hell « Girls With Pens

  8. my pet peeves are enquiring and inquiring
    oriented ~ orientated
    and the already mentioned their/they’re/there. what is so hard about these three? I explained to my secretary that if she’s talking position (ie here or there) then they are spelled almost the same. People are … becomes they’re and use the other one (their) for ownership after thinking about our/their i.e. two vowels followed by ‘r’.

    thanks for sharing

  9. You nailed so many of my pet peeves. Being a former English teacher, it’s hard for me not to walk around correcting people all the time. I am also a fan of the Oxford comma. AP doesn’t use it because historically, newspapers were concerned with how many characters were being used. Chopping that extra comma saved space.

    For me, misplaced apostrophes make me a little nutty. I often see people using an apostrophe when the word just needs to be plural.

  10. Pingback: Merry Christmas From Marcy & Lisa | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

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