9 grammar errors that can wreck your writing

I’m sure most people reading this will already be familiar with the need to get your grammar right in your writing. It is, however, often all too easy to miss mistakes that can go on to have a significant impact on how a reader views your book.

It isn’t hard to see how it might happen: when you’re writing the first draft of your novel, you’re not worrying too much about whether every single comma is in the right place. Your main goal is getting to the end. And then, later, in the editing process, small errors can easily be overlooked as you tackle the larger issues of plot and character.

Of course, grammar and spelling mishaps should be picked up in the proofreading stage, but it’s a fact of life that they still slip through the net from time to time. Still, it’s worth doing everything we can to avoid getting things wrong, so with this in mind let’s take a look at some common grammar errors that can detract from your writing.

They’re/their/there

I think this one appears on just about every single list of ‘the worst ever grammar mistakes’ in existence, and it does so because it’s a mistake many writers make. A brief guide:

  • They’re means they are.
  • Their is to do with other people, as in ‘their hair needs washing’ or ‘their parents are on holiday.’
  • There is for things like ‘the table is over there’ and ‘there is nothing like a cup of tea.’

Have/of

Writing ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have’ is a basic mistake and needs to be banished immediately.

Literally in the wrong place

Ah, the conundrum over the word ‘literally’. It’s too often used when what the writer really means is ‘figuratively’.

Apostrophe catastrophe

Apostrophes where they aren’t needed (apple’s and pear’s on shop signs, for instance) or missing where they are needed (Simons instead of Simon’s or the students books instead of the students’ books) are a common mistake, and getting them wrong can easily change the meaning of what you’re trying to say.

Affect/effect

Affect is generally used a verb. Effect is generally used as a noun. ‘X affects people differently’ is different to saying ‘the effect of X differs from person to person’.

The rogue comma

Commas where they aren’t needed. Commas used at what appear to be arbitrary points in a sentence. Commas where there should be a semicolon (quite a common one, this). They’re one of the most widely used punctuation marks; as writers, we should know how they work.

Fewer/less

As a general rule of thumb for this one – fewer is generally to do with numbers, while less is to do with other stuff. For example, ‘we have fewer examples of success since we changed the business’ and ‘the business has been less successful since we made the changes.’

Since/because

It’s not unusual for writers to use these two as largely interchangeable, but there is a difference. The word ‘since’ is generally to do with things relating to time, such as: ‘Since my 30th birthday, I’ve finally felt like more of a grown up.’ The word ‘because’ is more to do with reasoning, such as: ‘I feel like more of a grown up because I’m 30 now.’

Dis/uninterested

This can apply to other words too, such as dis- and unengaged. In the case of disinterested, it means that someone doesn’t really have a stake in something. For instance: ‘the gambler was disinterested about the race as he hadn’t placed a bet on it.’ Meanwhile, uninterested is more to do with a lack of interest overall: ‘the man was uninterested in the race; he didn’t like gambling or horseracing.’

What other grammar errors wind you up?

Emily Banting, Diane Scott liked this post

Advice To Young Men, from William Cobbett

Earlier today I was reading an article in QUEST: The Journal of the Queen’s English Society and thought I would share it with you. Please forgive any typographical errors resulting from the OCR scan.

The next thing is the grammar of your own language. Without understanding this, you can never hope to become fit for any thing beyond mere trade or agriculture. It is true that we do (God knows!) but too often see men have great wealth, high titles, and boundless power heaped upon them, who can hardly write 10 lines together correctly; but remember, it is not merit that has been the cause of their advancement; the cause has been, in almost every such case, the subserviency of the party to the will of some government, and the baseness of some nation who have quietly submitted to be governed by brazen fools.

Do not imagine that you will have luck of this sort: do not you hope to be rewarded and honoured for that ignorance which shall prove a scourge to your country and which will earn you the curses of the children yet unborn. Rely you upon your merit and upon nothing else. Without a knowledge of grammar, it is impossible for you to write correctly and it is mere accident if you speak correctly; and, bear in mind, that all well-informed persons judge of a man’s mind (until they have other means of judging) by his writing and speaking. The labour necessary to acquire this knowledge is, indeed, not trifling; grammar is not like arithmetic, a science consisting of several distinct departments, some of which may be dispensed with: it is a whole, and the whole must be learned, or no part is learned.

The subject is abstruse: it demands much reflection and much patience; but, when once the task is performed it is performed for life, and in every day of that life it will be found to be, in a greater or less degree, a source of pleasure or of profit or of both together, and, what is the labour? It consists of no bodily exertion; it exposes the student to no cold, no hunger, no suffering of any sort. The study need subtract from the hours of no business, nor, indeed, from the hours of necessary exercise: the hours usually spent on the tea or coffee shops, and in the mere gossip which accompany them; those wasted hours, of only one year, employed in the study of English grammar, would make you a correct speaker for the rest of your life.

You want no school, no room to study in, no expenses and no troublesome circumstances of any sort. I learned grammar when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a day. The edge of my berth, or that of the guard-bed, was my seat to study in: my knapsack was my bookcase; a bit of board lying on my lap was my writing-table; and the task did not demand anything like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase candle or oil; in winter time it was rarely that I could get any evening light except that of the fire, and then only my turn even of that. And if I, under such circumstances, and without parent or friend to advise or encourage me, accomplished this undertaking, what excuse can there be for any youth, however poor, however pressed with business, or however circumstanced as to room or other conveniences? To buy a pen or sheet of paper I was compelled to forego some portion of food, tough in a state of half-starvation: I had no moment of time that I could call my own and I had to read and to write amidst the talking, laughing, singing, whistling and brawling of at least half a score of the most thoughtless of men, and that, too, in the hours of freedom from all control.

Think not lightly of the farthing that I had to give, now and then, for ink, pen, or paper! That farthing was, alas! a great sum to me! I was as tall as I am now; I had great health and great exercise. The whole of the money not expended for us at market was two pence a week for each man. I remember, and well I may! that, upon one occasion, I, after all absolutely necessary expenses, had, on a Friday made shift to have a half-penny in reserve, which I had destined for the purchase of a red-herring in the morning; but, when I pulled off my clothes at night, so hungry then as to be hardly able to endure life, I found that I had lost my half-penny!

I buried my head under my miserable sheet and rug, and cried like a child! And, again I say if I, under circumstances like these, could encounter and overcome this task, is there, can there be, in the whole world, a youth to find an excuse for the non- performance? What youth, who shall read this, will not be ashamed to say that he is not able to find time and opportunity for this most essential of all the branches of book-learning?

William Cobbett, 1763-1835. Date of publication 1829.