5 common grammatical errors professional writers need to stop making
Because I edit and proofread blogs on a regular basis, I see a lot of the same grammatical errors repeatedly. And I’m not talking about mixing up its and it’s or your and you’re — if you’re writing in any sort of professional capacity, you should be catching those kind of things already. I’m talking about less obvious errors that your average reader might not notice, but that diminish the quality of your writing nonetheless.
Because quality of content is more important than ever in the world of inbound marketing, learning how to avoid these errors is crucial if you want your content to stand out from the millions of blogs posted on the web every day.
1. Subject-verb agreement
Most of the time, this is pretty obvious. A singular subject takes a singular verb. Murray camps out in the kitchen every day during lunch. But when the subject is less clear, it can create confusion.
Which verb is correct for this sentence? Neither of the pies is / are gluten free.
Answer: Did you say are? It’s actually is. The subject is neither, which is a singular indefinite pronoun. Many people would choose are in this instance, because they see the plural word pies. But “of the pies” is a prepositional phrase that can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning. Therefore, pies should not be taken into consideration when selecting the verb.
2. Antecedent-pronoun agreement
Similar to subject-verb agreement, your pronouns need to agree with the nouns they refer to. I often see plural pronouns used to refer to singular nouns. For example, using their to refer to a singular person or a company.
Incorrect: Google doesn’t typically announce their algorithm updates.
Correct: Google doesn’t typically announce its algorithm updates.
A single company is singular, along with collective nouns like team, staff, and family. When it comes to a person of unknown gender, it can get a little trickier, as the English language has no options for gender-neutral singular pronouns when referring to a person. As a result, the singular they has become more widely accepted. But I prefer to use this only when necessary. You can often get around this issue by making your subjects plural.
Incorrect: Your website should make it easy for the user to find what they are looking for.
Correct: Your website should make it easy for users to find what they are looking for.
This issue is also commonly seen with singular indefinite pronouns, such as each, either, none, everybody, everyone, nobody, somebody and the aforementioned neither.
Incorrect: We asked everyone to put their cell phones on silent during the meeting.
How would you fix this one? I personally try to avoid using “his or her,” as it usually sounds awkward. Some companies will opt to alternate between male pronouns and female pronouns for each paragraph of an article, which often works very well. You could also take out the pronoun entirely and change the sentence to something like:
We asked for all cell phones to be placed on silent during the meeting.
Sure, you could argue that this employs the verboten passive tense, but I personally find an occasional passive sentence less egregious than an incorrectly applied plural pronoun. Some may disagree, citing the limitations of the English language in this case, but if the issue can be avoided, why force it?
3. Parallel list structure
I see this one a lot. Parallel structure means that if you have a list, every item in that list must be functionally the same as the others (e.g. a word, phrase, or clause). Here’s what it looks like in practice:
Incorrect: Interruptive marketing methods like telemarketing are invasive, annoying, and they target the wrong people.
The above sentence sticks an independent clause into a list of adjectives, which makes it super awkward.
Correct: Interruptive marketing methods like telemarketing are invasive and annoying, and they target the wrong people.
Many people will regard this as incorrect because the list includes two uses of the conjunction and. It’s not incorrect, but if you want to avoid the two conjunctions, you could restructure the sentence:
Interruptive marketing methods like telemarketing are invasive, target the wrong people, and are often considered annoying.
Now, every item in your list functions the same way (starts with a verb), so the list items are parallel. Or, you could make all the list items adjectives:
Interruptive marketing methods like telemarketing are invasive, annoying, and often targeted to the wrong people.
4. Dangling modifiers
Whenever I see a dangling modifier, I think of my eleventh-grade English teacher’s favorite example: Hanging on a nail in the closet, he found his tie. What is hanging on a nail in the closet? Obviously, it’s meant to be the tie, but according to the sentence structure, it’s he. The phrase “hanging on a nail in the closet” modifies whatever comes directly after it. Start looking for dangling modifiers and you’ll see them everywhere. Here’s another example:
Incorrect: To explain inbound, your audience must have some basic knowledge of digital marketing.
Who’s doing the explaining here? Certainly not your audience. You are. But you don’t appear in this sentence.
Correct: To explain inbound, you must make sure your audience has some basic knowledge of digital marketing.
Or: To understand inbound, your audience must have some basic knowledge of digital marketing.
5. Compound adjectives
A compound adjective is two or more adjectives that are joined together to modify a noun. For example, a 500-word blog, a two-year-old dog, slow-moving fog. Compound adjectives are hyphenated when they appear before the noun they are modifying, but not after.
Correct: Aspirin-containing products should not be taken with this medication.
(You will notice this sentence takes on a very different meaning if the hyphen is omitted.)
Correct: The web content was well written.
Some compound adjectives are commonly accepted without the hyphen, for example, board certified surgeon.
Combining an adverb and an adjective does not create a compound adjective. As a general rule, if a word ends in -ly, don’t use a hyphen with it, because the adverb modifies the adjective rather than the noun that follows.
Incorrect: minimally-invasive surgery
Incorrect: fully-developed plan
Have any questions about these or other commonly confused grammar issues? Leave me a comment!