These Grammar Mistakes Make You Look like an Amateur

And that’s the last thing you want to look like when you write a report, prepare a presentation, or send an e-mail to a client. Yet in messages on the Internet and in public places, I see grammar mistakes all the time.

What I’ve prepared here is not an authoritative list, although with long experience as a writer and editor and with a personal library full of resources, I feel that I can speak with some authority. My suggested fixes apply to most cases.

In no particular order, I present my pet peeve grammar mistakes.

Mistake 1: Pronouns That Don’t Agree with Her Antecedents

This mistake is very common, committed by entities from global corporations to respected news sources.

“Chrysler is holding their biggest sale ever.”

It should be “Chrysler (the corporation, singular) is holding its (third person singular possessive pronoun) biggest sale ever.” Or you can restructure the sentence: “Chrysler dealers are holding their biggest sales ever.”

Identify the antecedent and use the corresponding pronoun.

Mistake 2: Separating the Subject, from the Verb with a Comma

Every comma needs a reason to exist. The problem arises when something intervenes to confuse the issue.

Here’s an example from a cellphone print ad:
“The family that plays together, stays together.”

Most people have never learned the art of diagramming a sentence. Let’s do it here:

The family: the subject, a noun
that plays together: an adjective phrase modifying the subject
stays: the verb
together: an adverb modifying the verb

Yes, when you read the sentence, it feels as if there should be a pause after together, a pause that warrants a comma (does this sound like your Grade 3 teacher?). Before you use any comma, know the rule that supports its use. “Sounds better” doesn’t count.

Identify the subject and the verb and make sure that no comma separates them.

Mistake 3: Using Title Case and sentence case

For headings, subtitles, and subheadings, you have a choice of two formats: title case and sentence case. Choose one and use it throughout your document.

Title Case Looks Like This
Sentence case looks like this

Title case is more traditional and elegant. With title case, capitalize the first word, the last word, and all other words except the articles and prepositions. Capitalize even the little words, like is, that are not prepositions. Sentence case is more modern and casual. With sentence case, capitalize the first word and any proper nouns.

However, with title case, capitalize prepositions only if they contain four or five letters (your choice, but be consistent) or more. In addition, if the title or the heading contains multiple lines, capitalize any preposition that’s the first word or the last word on the line.

Proofread your text for consistency in your title formats.

Mistake 4: Don’t Try to Capitalize on Capitalization

There are many rules to capitalization. Because you think a word is important is not one of them.

“Our services include Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. We also sell Furnaces, Heat Exchangers, and Indoor Air Quality Monitoring Devices.”

In the above sentences, none of the interior words should be capitalized. Unnecessary capital letters make the text harder and slower to read.
Capitalize the first word of the sentence, the pronoun I, and all proper nouns, which, I admit, can be variable. If you can’t figure out what should be capitalized, find out.

Mistake 5: Don’t Use “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks

People sometimes feel that they want a written word to appear cool. Resist the temptation.

My aunt helped me to organize all my “stuff.”
We sell the “best” pizza in town.
At the networking event, I “connected” with many new people.

Get over it. For more examples from the real world, check

In most cases, you can avoid enclosing words and phrases in quotes unless those words and phrases are part of direct quotations.

Mistake 6: Adverbs Misplaced

Place adverbs as close as possible to the verbs they modify. Adverbs, especially adverbs of time, are often placed before the verb, but not always. Drat! Generally, you can follow the Royal Order of Adverbs: manner, place, frequency, time, purpose. Note that adverb phrases, however, usually go after the verb.

“I always start the meeting at 10 a.m. sharp.”

The adverb of time, always, comes before the verb start. The adverb phrase, “at 10 a.m. sharp,” which also modifies the verb start, comes after the verb. In this case, the adverb phrase also comes after the direct object.

But note this:

“Because it rained, the golf game was cancelled.”
In this example, the cancellation was more important. For impact, it comes last.

“The golf game was cancelled because it rained.”
In this example, the rain was more important.

Mistake 7: They’re there with their children.

Get out your elementary school grammar books, folks.

They’re, there, their
It’s and its
You’re and your

Check the dictionary.

Mistake 8: The Serial Comma

Eighty per cent of professional editors use the serial comma. I don’t know why the other 20% don’t. The serial comma aids clarity and eliminates inconsistency.

“The Maritime Provinces consist of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.”

Some series of items, like the one above, don’t need a serial comma for clarity. But if you don’t use the serial comma as a matter of rule, then you must make a decision each time you write a series of items. The result is some series of items come with serial commas and some without. No to inconsistency!

Here’s a great example of when the serial comma is essential:
The panel consisted of three professors, two historians and an economist.

How many people made up the panel: three or six?

Use the serial comma in any series of three or more items, and don’t listen to what the 20% of editors say.

Mistake 9: Not Using the Semi-Colon

By closely joining two independent clauses, the semi-colon can make your writing tighter. But the semi-colon is often forgotten in one of its other uses: in a series of entries with internal commas.

“The photo included Jan Vandermere, the Dutch finance minister; Ellen Fitzpatrick, former president of Ireland; and James Malone, premier of Tasmania.“

Imagine that sentence with just commas. The Dutch economy could be in danger!

Learn the rules of usage. Every comma needs a reason.

Mistake 10: Follow the Grammarians, Not the Graphic Designers

Graphic designers have decided that using periods to separate the numbers in a telephone number looks cool, hip, and modern. It’s also an incorrect use of the period and a hindrance to readability. Separate non-sequential numbers by hyphens, not by periods. Period!

“If you want to know more, call me at 613-722-0129. If you call me at 613.722.0129, I won’t answer the phone.”

Don’t listen to the designers.