Love, Grammar - Common Mistakes and How To Avoid Them



There are few things that annoy professional writers (and professional nerds) more than bad grammar. I've created this guide to discuss the difference between true errors and stylistic preferences, what common mistakes you should look out for in your own writing, and techniques that can clarify the message you're sending. Whether you're a published author, a future published author, or just someone who values clear communication, this guide is for you.


1. The Oxford Comma and the Art of Lists

Most writers have strong feelings about the infamous Oxford comma, which is used to separate the second-to-last item in a list from the conjunction. Some argue that it's unnecessary, while others argue that it makes most lists—especially lengthy ones—easier to read. Personally, I'm a die-hard fan of the Oxford comma, and here's why.

Example: I went to the store to buy bread, butter, cheese, salami, and crackers. (The comma in question is the one between "salami" and "and.")

Compare that with: I went to the store to buy bread, butter, cheese, salami and crackers. (Note that the comma is missing here.)

In the second sentence, "salami and crackers" sounds like a single item. Readers will be likely to skip over one of the last two items in the list because the comma isn't there to warn them to slow down and prepare for another items. And your hapless character will go to the store and come back with only four of the five items they need.

Do not use semicolons in place of commas in lists, unless each item in the list is a standalone sentence and the last item is not connected by a conjunction.

CORRECT: I climb up the hill; I look out over the valley; I photograph the sunset.

INCORRECT: I climb up the hill; I look out over the valley; and I photograph the sunset.

INCORRECT: I went to the store to buy bread; butter; cheese; milk; and eggs.


2. Capitalization After Colons

Do not capitalize the first word after a colon or a semicolon.

CORRECT: This is what I want you to do: find his house, open his mailbox, and slip this letter in.

INCORRECT: This is what I want you to do: Find his house, open his mailbox, and slip this letter in.

INCORRECT: Please go find my book; It may be sitting on the desk.


3. Commas Between Clauses

There are two main types of clauses: dependent clauses and independent clauses. Dependent clauses cannot stand without the rest of the sentence, whereas independent clauses can.

DEPENDENT: I went outside and played with my dog.

INDEPENDENT: I went outside, and my dog was ready to play.

In the dependent example, "played with my dog" is not a complete sentence. In the independent example, "my dog was ready to play" is a complete sentence. Commas should not be placed between dependent clauses, but they should almost always be placed between independent clauses. (The "always" comes in because authors sometimes like to play with pacing, which will change where the comma goes. See the examples below.)

CORRECT: I am home alone, and I hear a strange noise. 

INCORRECT: I am home alone and I hear a strange noise.

INCORRECT (BUT EXCUSABLE): I am home alone, I hear a strange noise, someone is coming up the stairs, their steps echo, I can't find my phone to call for help. (This sentence is artistic and plays with pacing. It is technically incorrect, but some comma rules are bendy.)

Those of you who have read Andy Weir's bestseller Project Hail Mary are probably shaking your heads. If a bestselling author doesn't use the independent clause comma, why should you? The answer is found in context. Project Hail Mary is written in first person by a narrator who adopts a casual tone and doesn't pretend to be a professional writer. The lack of the independent clause comma makes the reader speed up, as their pace isn't blocked by the "pause" symbol. Thus, the writing style mimics fast-paced, everyday conversation. The protagonist is talking to you, not writing to you. And if that's the style you're going for, consider dropping the independent clause comma. (But be consistent—whichever style you choose, stick with it, and realize that if you're submitting your work for publication, you may be asked to change it.)


4. Starting Sentences with "But" and "And"

Contrary to what you've probably read in grammar books written before the late nineties, it's completely acceptable in modern, informal writing to start sentences with conjunctions. 

CORRECT: I wanted to play with my friends, and they were eagerly waving to me from the street outside my window. But I wasn't finished with my homework, so I had to stay inside.

CORRECT: It would've been better had I known the truth earlier. And I felt sorry for my insensitive actions. But it was too late to change the past, so all I could do was apologize.

However, it's usually best not to start the first sentence of a paragraph with "and" or "but," and you should never start a whole piece of writing with either.


5. Semicolons—You Don't Actually Need Them

Semicolons are used to join two independent clauses without the use of a conjunction. They're formal, stiff, antiquated, and awkward; they should only be used in rare cases (and this sentence is an example of how not to use them, unless you want to sound like a 1900's schoolboy!)

CORRECT: They're formal, stiff, antiquated, and awkward, and they should only be used in rare cases.


6. Em Dashes

Em dashes are uncomfortably long dashes that can be used in lieu of conjunctions to join two independent clauses. In modern grammar, they serve essentially the same purpose as a semicolon, but they're much easier on the eyes. Note that an em dash is not the same thing as a normal dash, which is used to join hyphenated words ("purpose-driven"). An em dash is longer—it looks like that, and there is no space between the em dash and the words it separates.

CORRECT: I'm going to the store—do you want anything?

INCORRECT: I'm going to the store — do you want anything?

INCORRECT: I'm going to the store-do you want anything?

INCORRECT: I'm going to the store - do you want anything?

INCORRECT: He is purpose—driven.


7. Paragraph Breaks

A paragraph break should occur 1) when you change subject, 2) a new character speaks, or 3) a scene switches from speech to description or action, and vice versa.

CORRECT: 

It wasn't long before I realized that I was lost. The sun was setting, the temperature was dropping, and the rustle of the leaves, comforting before, had begun to sound ominous.

Just a few hours ago, I had been sitting comfortably in a camp chair, my thoughts far from anything but the new Chicago Manual of Style I had purchased at the bookstore. I had been snacking on bagels and stale cream cheese and enjoying the wilderness without worrying about spending the night outside.

CORRECT: 

"I want to go home," he said.

"Me too," his friend agreed.

INCORRECT: 

"I want to go home," he said. "Me too," his friend agreed.

CORRECT:

"Can I have an iced coffee?" she asked.

The moment she walked in, I knew I wanted to talk to her, but I couldn't think of the right words. It wasn't until she addressed me that I realized there were no right words.


8. Italics

Writers often use italics to convey surprise or other strong, sudden emotion, but this isn't usually the best method. Emotion should be conveyed through the characters, their actions, their words, and the scene they're living in, not the format of the words on the page. 

However, don't despair—italics are still useful in certain situations.

CORRECT: Stop. Don't move. Don't even breathe. I huddled in the corner, trembling. (Here, the italics are used to show that the character isn't speaking aloud.)

CORRECT: For expository writing (that is, nonfiction informational writing), italics can be used to express hesitation or emphasis, but they should always be used sparingly.

CORRECT, BUT THERE MIGHT BE A BETTER WAY: "Don't go left!" she shouted. "It's right, doofus!"


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