Love, Grammar Part II - Common Grammar Mistakes and How To Avoid Them

If you missed the first "Love, Grammar" article, read it here and improve your writing today!

 1. That

"That" is a useful word in certain contexts.

CORRECT: That's where I go to school.

CORRECT: Can I help you with that?

But it can also be annoyingly redundant, slow down your reader, and muddle the meaning of a sentence. I'm going to term this usage "incorrect," even though it's technically correct, because most editors will delete it on sight.

CORRECT: I shelved the book I'd been reading earlier.

INCORRECT: I shelved the book that I'd been reading earlier.

Notice how the omission of "that" in the correct example makes the sentence seem a bit more casual, too, since most people don't interrupt their speech to add the extra word. This is not to say that if you want to sound more formal, you should keep the "that." Whenever possible, you should delete it, no matter the tone of your writing.

CORRECT: This is not to say that if you want to sound more formal, you should keep the "that."

INCORRECT: This is not to say if you want to sound more formal, you should keep the "that."

Here, without the "that," it's hard to see the relationship between "this" and sounding more formal. "That" is necessary in this case. As a general rule of thumb, if you would say "that" when you say the sentence aloud, it should be there. If not, delete it.

2. Contractions

Don't be afraid to use contractions, even in formal writing. If you read back through the previous "Love, Grammar" article I wrote, you'll see that it's rife with contractions. In fact, if you just look at the previous point, you'll count eight! 

Contractions serve two main purposes: one, they make your writing sound less stiff, and two, they help your reader spend less time on unnecessary "nots" and "ises" so they can get straight to the point. 

3. Fewer vs. Less

A lot of people - and I do mean, a lot - get this one wrong. I've even spotted this mistake on big-name company paperwork, advertisements, and labels. 

"Fewer" is used when you're talking about an object you can count. "Less" is used when you're talking about something you can't count.

CORRECT: I have fewer marbles than you.

CORRECT: I have less flour than the recipe calls for.

INCORRECT: I have less marbles than you. (This is the most common mistake.)

INCORRECT: I have fewer flour than the recipe calls for. (?)

INCORRECT: I have less vacation days than you.

And while we're talking about things a lot of people do incorrectly ...

4. A Lot

"A lot" is a phrase composed of two words - an article and a noun. It's never, under any circumstances whatsoever, not even when pigs fly, a single word. "Lot" is always followed by a plural verb if it's the subject of the sentence - a somewhat counterintuitive rule since it's preceded by the singular article "a" - but beware. In English grammar, "lot" is rarely the subject.

CORRECT: I have a lot of things to do today. ("I" is the subject, so the verb is singular.)

CORRECT: A lot of people are leaving Colorado. ("Lot" is the subject, so the verb is plural.)

INCORRECT: Allot of people are leaving Colorado. ("Allot" is a verb that means to assign a certain number or amount of things.)

INCORRECT: Alot of people are leaving Colorado. ("Alot" is not a word. Ever.)

5. Proceed vs. Precede

"Precede" means to go before, either in time or in rank. "Proceed" means to go ahead. Though they sound the same and look similar, they have very different meanings and cannot be used interchangeably.

CORRECT: A noun usually precedes a verb.

CORRECT: Proceed to the queue.

CORRECT: She precedes him in the company hierarchy.

INCORRECT: The car preceeds the truck. (This is a confusion of the two words.)

INCORRECT: The car proceeds the truck.

6. Ending Sentences with Prepositions

Similarly to the "starting sentences with and/but" example in my last Love, Grammar article, this is an outdated rule that is rarely followed in modern informal writing. If you're writing a sentence that doesn't make sense without a preposition ending, don't do gymnastics to work around it. Either rewrite the whole sentence (formal writing) or simply leave it be (informal writing).

CORRECT: There's a lot to be grateful for. (There's no easy fix to this sentence.)

INCORRECT: There is a lot for which we can be grateful. (This sounds pretentious and unnecessarily complex.)

INCORRECT: Who wants to come with? (This can easily be fixed, and the fix sounds better than the original: "Who wants to come with me?")

INCORRECT: She's the one I was looking for. (This is passive. An easy fix would be to flip the sentence and just directly state: "I was looking for her.")

7. Passive Voice

That the passive voice should not often be used is common knowledge to most writers.

Let me try that again.

Most writers know not to use the passive voice. Referring back to the very first point, "that" is a word that should be avoided whenever possible. The passive voice makes "that" endemic. Also, it puts the verb before the subject, which is confusing (imagine knowing that walking is happening, but not knowing by what or whom - that's the effect of the passive voice).

The passive voice is sometimes hard to spot. If a sentence contains the word "by" followed by the doer of the action, or if it starts with "that" not being used as a subject, it's probably passive voice - the type that should be avoided.

CORRECT: My daughter did the grocery shopping.

INCORRECT: The grocery shopping was done by my daughter.

CORRECT: Our relatives assumed we were going to make dinner. 

INCORRECT: That we were going to make dinner was assumed by our relatives. (This might be the single worst case of passive voice I've ever had the displeasure of reading. Notice how the "that" isn't necessary in the corrected version.)

However, there is a time and place for the passive voice. If you don't want to specify who did something, you may find yourself using the passive voice out of necessity.

CORRECT: Many articles are written about the subject.

CORRECT: The program was created to stop viruses.

8. Ninety-nine, 101

I'll be drawing from the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) for this point. Note that these rules can vary between style guides, but CMOS is a safe source for both technical and non-technical writing, which is why I've chosen it here.

There are three basic rules for numbers:

1. Hyphenate between numbers like seventy-eight and sixty-four (but not numbers like nineteen).

2. Write out all numbers below 100 (example: twenty-four, not 24).

3. Use numerals for all numbers 100 or above.

9. More vs -er

In general, adjectives with one syllable become comparative with the -er ending, whereas adjectives with multiple syllables become comparative with the addition of the word "more." Adjectives ending with -ing or -ed (formed from verbs) always require "more." But there are exceptions to this rule. If you're not sure, start by saying it aloud. If you're still not sure, type the word in question into Microsoft Word and see if it underlines it in blue. If not, you're correct. If it does, there's a problem.

CORRECT: I am feeling more tired than I expected. 

CORRECT: He was more determined after the pep talk.

CORRECT: You look calmer today than yesterday.

INCORRECT: I am feeling tireder than I expected. 

INCORRECT: You look more calm today than yesterday.