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Dodge the grammar traps

Rusty chain.

You don't have to swallow a grammar book to write correctly. If you can just avoid ten serious and very common traps, your chances of making a grammar mistake drop dramatically.

Ten serious grammar mistakes
Not many, are there? But these errors are very common, and they get noticed. You must get these right or your writing will seem sloppy.

1. Stop runaway sentences
Run-on sentences are two sentences end to end, often with a comma in between. But commas don't join sentences! To join two sentences you must have a word such as "and", 'but", "or", 'yet "or "because".

RIGHT We have received your order. We will despatch the plants this afternoon.
RIGHT We have received your order, and we will despatch the plants this afternoon.
WRONG We have received your order, we will despatch the plants this afternoon.
To find where you need a period or a comma, read your own writing aloud, exaggerating the pauses. Ask a colleague for help, if necessary.

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2. "However" needs a cap and a comma
Another serious error is using an adverb to join two sentences. Adverbs don't join sentences! "However" is the commonest culprit.

RIGHT June was mostly fine. However, July was rainy.
WRONG June was mostly fine, however, July was rainy.
Always put "However," at the beginning of a new sentence, complete with comma. Then you're sure to get it right.

(If you put "however" in mid-sentence, there's a high chance of making a grammar mistake.)

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3. Get itsy bitsy "its" correct
How do you know when "its" needs an apostrophe? You must get this right, and you can!

"Its" and "it's" belong to two different families.
One family has apostrophes:
He's, She's, It's.

The other family has no apostrophes:
His, Her, Its.

To check whether you need an apostrophe, run through the family tree.

He's fine. She's fine. It's fine. (Apostrophe required.)
His hat. Her hat. Its hat. (No apostrophe required.)
"It's" (with apostrophe) is always short for "it is" or "it has". Always. The apostrophe replaces the missing letters.
It's your turn. It's been too long.

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4. Put apostrophes in their place
It's important to get all apostrophes right, for clarity as well as correctness. You want to write "the employees' obligations" or "the CEO's diary" or "the children's curriculum". Where does the apostrophe go?

To find the right spot for the apostrophe, reverse the phrase like this:
The obligations of the [...............]

An apostrophe (or an apostrophe+s) goes after the exact word or phrase in the [brackets].

the obligations of the [employee]
becomes: the [employee]'s obligations

the obligations of the [employees]
becomes: the [employees]' obligations

the diary of the [CEO]
becomes: the [CEO]'s diary

the playground of the [children]
becomes: the [children]'s playground.

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5. Trap the wandering "only"
If "only" wanders into the wrong position, confusion often follows. Theoretically, the whole meaning of a sentence changes if you accidentally put "only" in the wrong spot.

Only the new manual confused the PA. (The old one didn't confuse her.)
The new manual only confused the PA. (It didn't spoil her day.)
The new manual confused only the PA. (It didn't confuse other staff.)
The new manual confused the only PA. (There was only one PA.)
Each sentence above is grammatically correct and each has a different meaning. The problem is, people can take the wrong meaning very easily.

When speaking, your emphasis and tone of voice shows exactly what you mean by "only" - regardless of word order. Therefore in conversation, it doesn't matter if "only" is in the "wrong" position. Indeed, the correct version often sounds klunky when you say it aloud.

However, when the same sentence is written, suddenly the position of "only" can change the whole meaning. There is no tone of voice on the page. But readers often imagine a certain tone of voice in their mind, and that can override the grammatical meaning of the sentence.

You get no brownie points for being grammatically correct if people persist in misunderstanding. If you have the slightest doubt, use the easy fix.

Nine times out of ten you can simply remove the word "only". The meaning will still be clear and you save time.

The new manual confused the PA.

Other wandering adverbs can also be troublesome, e.g. "just", "still" and "even". Again, the simplest solution is to remove the word from the sentence.

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6. Me me me, not I myself
Psychological factors make this an extremely common error.

WRONG Please send a list of staff addresses to Paul and I.
RIGHT Please send a list of staff addresses to Paul and me.

To check which is correct, remove the other person or people in the equation.
The right answer will then be obvious:

Please send a list of staff addresses to [REMOVE "Paul and"] me.

Many people try to avoid the issue by writing "myself" or "yourself".

That's equally bad, if not worse! It's grammatically wrong, and (oops!) is interpreted by some people as a sign of a poor education.

WRONG I'll send a list of staff addresses to Paul and yourself.
RIGHT I'll send a list of staff addresses to you and Paul.
"Myself" and "yourself" are correct in only two situations:
  1. To emphasise or contrast: "Paul knows everyone, but I myself am new here." "Your sister has blue eyes, but you yourself have brown eyes."
  2. When you're doing something to yourself: "I ask myself..." "You set high standards for yourself."

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7. Items on a list must be a matching set
This is another must. A non-parallel list can be ambiguous and vaguely disturbing --besides being grammatically incorrect.

A list always has either a heading or a stem. The stem is the start of a list, and every item on the list must finish the sentence perfectly. (This is true regardless of whether you use bullets.)

The Ministry of Grammar approved verbs, nouns, and punished those who misused them.
The Ministry of Grammar approved verbs and nouns, and punished those who misused them.
As you see, even a short, simple list can go wrong --and trouble is almost inevitable when you write a long or complex list.
The Ministry of Grammar ordered a customised style guide, 50 dictionaries of phrasal verbs, and arranged for consultation with the Journalists' Training Organisation.
Write the sentence with bullet points (just as a test) and then make sure the first words of all the bullet points rhyme grammatically. In this example, the words "ordered", "ordered" and "arranged" are parallel, or rhyme.

The Ministry of Grammar:

  • ordered a customised style guide
  • 50 dictionaries of phrasal verbs
  • arranged for consultation with the Journalists' Training Organisation.
To achieve parallel construction, this list needs an extra word to start the second bullet item: ordered 50 dictionaries...

The need for parallel construction applies even in sentences with only two items. Accidents happen when the writer is striving for a literary effect or when the main thought is interrupted by extra phrases.

WRONG You can choose between increasing the heat or, on the other hand, to reduce the quantity.
RIGHT You can choose between increasing the heat and reducing the quantity.
RIGHT You can either increase the heat or reduce the quantity.

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8. Each and every one is singular
This requires some tricky footwork.

When we use words like "each", "every", "everybody","nobody" or "anybody", we're thinking about a number of people or things. But all those words are grammatically singular: they refer to just one person or thing at a time.

And unfortunately, if you change the verb to correct the grammar, you create a pedantic phrase like "he or she" or "his or her".

Don't struggle over the grammar. Instead, make your point some other way.

WRONG Everyone must clean their shoes.
RIGHT BUT FUSSY Everyone must clean his or her shoes.
RIGHT All guests must clean their shoes.
RIGHT You must clean your shoes.

WRONG Each invoice must have "PAID" stamped over their number.
RIGHT Each invoice must have "PAID" stamped over its number.
RIGHT Each invoice must have "PAID" stamped over the number.

"Neither" and "either" present a similar problem.
WRONG Neither of my shirts were clean.
RIGHT BUT TRICKY Neither of my shirts was clean.
RIGHT Both my shirts were dirty.
RIGHT I didn't have a clean shirt.

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9. Get tricky subjects to agree with their verbs
Certain annoying words are usually singular but sometimes plural.

RIGHT The committee has approved expenditure of $11,000.
(Singular, because all the people on the committee acted as one.)

RIGHT BUT SEEMS WRONG The committee have gone on holiday.
("Committee" is plural here, because the people acted as separate individuals.)
EASY FIX The committee members have gone on holiday.

Some subjects seem plural but in certain kinds of sentences are really singular. Trust your instinct. Write what you'd say when talking.

RIGHT Ten dollars is plenty.
RIGHT Two litres is a lot to drink.
Sometimes the subject of a sentence has two parts: a singular phrase and a plural phrase. Again, write exactly what you would say.

Provided English is your first language, your instinct will usually be correct. You'll naturally match the verb to the phrase immediately before it - in which case the grammar will be correct.

RIGHT Neither the topsoil nor the plants have arrived.
RIGHT Neither the plants nor the topsoil has arrived.

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10. Make sure your starter phrase refers to the very next word
Often you'll want to start a sentence with a starter phrase followed by a comma. If so, the phrase MUST refer to the word (or phrase) that comes immediately after the comma. (Be specially wary when your introductory phrase includes a word ending in "-ing" or "-ed".)

If you get this wrong, you can accidentally write a very silly sentence. This error causes more red faces than miscommunication. Still, not a good look.

WRONG Sprinkled with chopped coriander, kids love these potatoes.
RIGHT Sprinkled with chopped coriander, these potatoes are popular with kids.
WRONG As a putative social historian, this style of research was just up my alley.
RIGHT As a putative social historian, I liked this style of research.

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And that's all?
Yes, that's all! When you have conquered these ten common errors, your chances of making a grammar mistake drop dramatically.


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