Grammar mistakes in speaking and writing are as common as tween girls at a Justin Bieber concert. We’re all a little guilty of making a mistake here and there, but the following common errors can muddle your message, confuse the reader, and embarrass you—whether you realize it or not.
So, place your right hand on the Bible (that’s Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” for our purposes) and take the pledge with me right now to avoid these common grammar mistakes.
Horrible homophones. Homophones are words that are pronounced the same as others but have different meanings and spellings. They are not interchangeable, and there are two sets in particular that regularly trip people up.
They’re is the contraction of “they” and “are”.
Their is a possessive.
There signifies a place.
Example: “They’re not sure where they parked their car. It’s over there by the No Parking sign.”
You’re is the contraction of “you” and “are”.
Your is a possessive.
Example: “You’re sure that’s not your car being towed away?”
Comma confusion. Commas are a little like salt on your dinner table. There are three types of users:
- those who use them wisely and appropriately,
- those who use a heavy hand and sprinkle them everywhere, and
- those who steadfastly avoid them altogether.
By clearing up two of the most common mistakes, maybe we can get everyone into the “wisely and appropriately” category.
Using commas in a list
You’ve probably seen memes or T-shirts that drive home the importance of proper comma usage in lists.
I like cooking dogs and kids. I like cooking, dogs, and kids.
Unless you’re the wicked witch in a fairy tale, the second sentence more clearly states the things that bring you happiness in life. (Yes, I favor the Oxford comma before “and”.)
Using a comma in a compound sentence
When a conjunction like “and” separates two independent clauses in a sentence, you need to use a comma.
An independent clause can stand on its own as a complete sentence.
Incorrect: You parked in a No Parking zone and your car is being towed away.
Correct: You parked in a No Parking zone, and your car is being towed away.
A dependent clause doesn’t express a complete thought and can’t stand alone.
Incorrect: Your car was parked in a No Parking zone, and is being towed away.
Correct: Your car was parked in a No Parking zone and is being towed away.
It’s all about me—or is it I? I’ve often heard well-meaning people use the word I when the word me is actually correct. The right choice depends on whether the pronoun is the subject (the actor in the sentence) or the object of the sentence (receiving the action).
Incorrect: Jenny and me are going to the fair.
Correct: Jenny and I are going to the fair.
Incorrect: You can come to the fair with Jenny and I.
Correct: You can come to the fair with Jenny and me.
When in doubt, simplify the sentence. If we remove Jenny, “You can come to the fair with I.” is obviously wrong. (Of course, not taking Jenny to the fair seems wrong, too.)
Who or whom? This has sent many a writer running for the reference books. Similar to I and me, the choice between who and whom is determined by how the word is used in a sentence. If it’s the subject, use who. If it’s the object of the sentence, use whom. One quick way to figure out which one is correct is to answer the question you’re asking with “he”, “him”, “she” or “her”.
Who went to the fair without Jenny?
She went to the fair without Jenny.
Whom is Jenny mad at?
Jenny is mad at her.
It’s vs. its. This one is short and sweet. It’s is a contraction of the words “it” and “is”. Its is the possessive form of the word “it”.
It’s a proven fact that a cat can jump five times its height in one leap.
By the way, its’ is not a word, so don’t use it.
Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Now, I know you wouldn’t use those in writing. But if you’re using should of, could of, and would of, you’re also incorrect. The correct wording is:
Should have (should’ve)
Could have (could’ve)
Would have (would’ve)
The sound of the contraction in speech (should’ve) has led people to think “should of” is correct—but it’s not.
Less or fewer? This is a word crime I hear and see committed on a daily basis in both speech and writing. The simple solution is to use fewer for things you can count and less for things you can’t.
I need to eat less potato salad.
I put fewer potatoes in the salad.
Another way to think about the difference that also takes care of some of the exceptions to the simple rule is to use less for singular nouns and fewer for plural nouns. In the example above, “potato salad” is singular, and “potatoes” is plural.
Than vs. then. The easiest way to keep these two straight is to focus on this basic difference: than is used when you’re talking about comparisons; then is used when you’re talking about something relating to time.
She likes potato salad better than macaroni salad.
She had potato salad with dinner then ate more for dessert.
Affect or effect? This is an oldie but a goodie, because the two are so easy to mix up. Here’s the short version of how to choose between them. Affect is usually a verb meaning to impact or change. Effect is usually a noun that is the result of a change.
The storm caused power outages that affected thousands of people.
The storm had a negative effect on our party.
Who that? While the lines have gotten a little blurry on this one, it’s best to follow the rule. Use who when referring to people. Use that when referring to objects, animals, or groups.
Doug Allen is the singer who performs the National Anthem at the Sabres games.
The Who was the group that performed at the Bills game.
While the second statement isn’t true, it is correct grammatically.
Alot of problems. This one just shouldn’t happen. “Alot” is not a word. Even now, my spell check is desperately trying to pull the two apart. Think of a lot like many former Hollywood power couples: they’re great on their own, but together they just don’t work.
Literally abused. The Ted Mosby character on the TV series How I Met Your Mother tried in one episode to correct the constant misuse of the word literally. Reruns and Netflix aside, Ted needs a little reinforcement. “Literally” describes something that actually happened.
If you say, “That rock concert literally blew me away.”, we have to assume the music was so loud that the force of it blew you to another location.
Irregardless, it’s wrong. I really don’t know the genesis of this word, but I hear and see it often from people who should know better. So, let’s break it down. The suffix “less” means “without”, so the word “regardless” literally means “without regard”. Adding the negative prefix “ir” makes it a double negative that would actually mean “not having no regard for”. Listen to your spell checker, and cut your “ir” off.
I feel badly. This just sounds so right and proper with that “ly” tacked on the end, doesn’t it? Alas, it’s just so wrong. If you “feel badly”, you’ve lost your sense of touch. In which case, I feel bad for you.
I could care less. If you’re reading my blog post and thinking “I could care less”, I thank you. It means you do care just a little. If you couldn’t care less, then I really do feel bad.
I hope this helped illuminate some of the trickier language rules and common mistakes. No matter what position or industry you’re in, writing well (not good!) helps boost your credibility. So, before you hit the send key or dash off your next missive, take the time to re-read your words to ensure you’re putting your best grammar foot forward.