You can’t tell who they are until something happens. Something evil. Something so terrible it’s almost an unspeakable crime. But they’re everywhere. And if you’re not a careful proofreader of your own writing, you may one day find yourself face to face with the grammar police.
And that’s no laughing matter.
The uncommissioned members of the grammar police are outraged by misplaced commas. They hyperventilate over misspellings. And they’ll shake their fist at the sky over a dangling participle…sometimes muttering words we can’t repeat.
For freelance writers, there’s an often overlooked factor that kills some client relationships and undermines your credibility: grammar and punctuation mistakes.
Even seasoned writers are at risk of letting those mistakes pass through the final draft. And I guarantee you, that if you do, the grammar police will find you. They’ll slash your work with a red pen and virtually edit your writing into oblivion. Don’t let that happen.
Here are the 10 most common writing mistakes to watch for, and how to correct them before the grammar police hunt you down.
1. dangling participle
INCORRECT: Reported missing a month ago, police have recovered the body of a young girl.
CORRECT: The body of a young girl reported missing a month ago has been recovered by police.
Verb forms ending in -ing or -ed are called participles. They can be used as adjectives, either alone, or as the first word in a descriptive phrase. A common error is to follow a participial phrase with the wrong noun, as in the example above. The noun being described by “reported” is “girl,” not “police.”
2. if I would / if I had / if I did
INCORRECT: If I would have known about the party, I would have gone to it.
CORRECT: If I had known about the party, I would have gone to it.
When speaking of an event that might have happened in the past but didn’t, we use an if clause containing the helping verb “had” followed by a main clause containing “would”: If I had known you were coming, I would have baked a cake. This use is sometimes called the “third conditional.”
3. Microsoft is/are
American usage: Microsoft is settling with another software distributor. British usage: Microsoft are settling with another software distributor.
In British English, collective nouns and the names of organizations can take either a singular or plural verb, depending upon whether the entity is being thought of as a single thing or as a collection of individual things or persons. In American usage, such words almost always take a singular verb.
4. which / who
INCORRECT: That’s the boy which started the fire.
CORRECT: That’s the boy who started the fire.
The relative pronoun which stands for inanimate things only.
5. who / that
INCORRECT: The woman that sold you the car didn’t own it.
CORRECT: The woman who sold you the car didn’t own it.
Although many speakers and writers consider the words who and that be interchangeable, others prefer to reserve who for speaking of humans or humanized creatures, and that for referring to inanimate entities. Sometimes there are stylistic reasons to use that to stand for a person, but in general, use who when referring to people.
6. comma splice
INCORRECT: The fire truck tore around the corner, flames spurted from the burning car.
CORRECT: The fire truck tore around the corner. Flames spurted from the burning car.
A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined by a comma.
7. comma missing after introductory clause
INCORRECT: If I were you I’d do what you have done.
CORRECT: If I were you, I’d do what you have done.
An adverbial clause that begins a sentence is set off by a comma: When the rains came, everyone stayed inside.
8. comma missing after introductory words/phrases
INCORRECT: To be perfectly honest I don’t like her one bit.
CORRECT: To be perfectly honest, I don’t like her one bit.
Single words and phrases that begin a sentence are set off by a comma: Yes, you may go. In my opinion, James Fenimore Cooper is unjustly ignored.
9. comma after main clause
INCORRECT: The King of Siam held absolute power over his subjects, when Anna Leonowens lived at his court.
CORRECT: The King of Siam held absolute power over his subjects when Anna Leonowens lived at his court.
When the adverbial clause follows the main clause, a comma is not usually needed.
10. comma instead of semi-colon
INCORRECT: We missed the bus, we did not know what to do.
CORRECT: We missed the bus; we did not know what to do.
Using a semi-colon to join closely-related main clauses is another means of avoiding a comma splice. If the clauses are very short, commas may be used: He came, he saw, he conquered.
Correct mistakes before the grammar police hunt you down
If you don’t want the grammar police to hunt you down, leave time to proof your own work. Study these common mistakes. Correct your work. And talk to your clients about their editing and review process. They may be your last defense to ward off an attack by the grammar police.
Are you a writer, member of the grammar police, or both? Let’s discuss in the comments below.