Teacher explaining grammar to student

3 Simple Grammar Tips to Improve Your Writing

As an editor, I encounter certain grammatical mistakes time and time again. Errors aren’t necessarily a reflection of a writer’s intelligence – it makes sense that with all the quick, informal writing we do nowadays (emails, texts, etc.), and the universal availability of no-thinking-required writing resources like spell-check and Google searches, we’re lazier writers compared to previous generations. However, despite their widespread occurrence, grammatical blunders can be costly mistakes if made in certain contexts – such as a cover letter for a job or another important document. Fortunately, if you get these three grammar tips down pat, you’ll be able to avoid many common grammar gaffs.

1. Stop Using the Wrong Word

There’s a scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya, in response to Vizzini’s use of the word “inconceivable,” says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I often repeat this quote to myself when reading others’ writing – mostly because I’m sort of a dork. In any case, writing (or saying) one word when you mean another can make you look kind of silly.

Oftentimes, people mix up two homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and may be spelled differently) such as “they’re” and “their.” In other instances, we use a particular word incorrectly because somewhere along the line, we started thinking this word means something it doesn’t. When you’re not entirely sure if you’re using the correct word, simply use a free online dictionary. Also, note and commit to memory the correct usage of the following commonly misused words.

They’re/There/Their

They’re is a contraction for the words “they” and “are.” Use it to talk about more than one person performing an action, e.g., “They’re painting the fence.”

There is most commonly used to talk about a place (“We went there for Christmas last year”) or to state a fact (“There is celery in the refrigerator.”)

Their indicates possession, e.g., “I gave them their dinner.”

You’re/Your

You’re is a contraction of “you” and “are.” Use it in place of “you are,” e.g., “You’re going home now, right?”

Your is used to indicate possession, e.g., “Your shirt is in the laundry basket.”

Effect/Affect

Effect is a noun, as in “cause and effect.” Use it when talking about a result or consequence, e.g., “The effects of not exercising include obesity and heart disease.”

Affect is a verb. Use it to describe an action wherein one element is influencing another, e.g., “I think your constant partying is starting to affect your grades.”

Literally

Literally is an adjective used to describe something that is factually true, e.g., “He literally has every single book in the Twilight series.” (to describe someone who really does own every single book in the series). We often misuse this word, using it to emphasize the strength of our emotions, e.g., “I was so upset that my head literally exploded.” (If your head literally exploded, you wouldn’t be alive to tell us about it!)

Weary/Wary

When you are weary, you are tired. People frequently confuse this word with wary, which means suspicious.

Loose/Lose

Loose is an adjective used to describe something that doesn’t fit tightly, e.g., “The shirt was loose on him.” This word is often confused with the word lose (the opposite of “win” and “find”).

2. Punctuate Properly

If you don’t use proper punctuation, the meaning of your words might change or become unclear. For example, I have a friend who frequently uses periods in place of question marks. I might send her a message saying, “I saw our old P.E. teacher begging for change yesterday!” To this, she’d reply, “She was.” As written, she’s stating that she agrees with me, perhaps because she also saw our teacher in front of VONS yesterday. But knowing her, she’s probably asking me, “She was?” because she wants to know if I’m serious or kidding.

When it comes to punctuation, certain rules are open to interpretation. For example, depending on who you ask, you may or may not need to use a serial comma (the comma in between the last two words of a series). However, other punctuation rules, like always capitalizing the first letter of a sentence and using quotation marks to indicate someone is speaking, cannot be deviated from. The following are some common punctuation errors to avoid.

The comma splice: A comma splice is an error that occurs when you separate two independent statements with a comma instead of a period, e.g., “She went to the store to buy bread, the house was on fire when she came back.” To avoid comma splices, use a period or semicolon to separate two separate statements, or use a comma with a conjunction such as “and” or “but,” e.g., “She went to the store to buy bread, and the house was on fire when she came back.”

Using apostrophes for plurals: Apostrophes are for indicating possession (“Jeremy’s blanket”) and to replace the missing letters in contractions (“you’re”). People often mistakenly use apostrophes when making words plural, e.g., “phone’s” or “CD’s.” Don’t do this. The correct way to write the plural of “phone” is “phones.” Write more than one CD as “CDs.”

Capitalizing common nouns: A common noun such as “car” or “elevator,” no matter how important in the context of your sentence, should never be capitalized unless it is the first word of a sentence. Within a sentence, only capitalize proper nouns such as someone’s name or a famous landmark.

3. Get Your Pronouns Straight

Another common error in both speech and writing is using the wrong pronoun. In particular, people often say “I” when they should use “me.” Somehow, many of us seem to have picked up the notion that it’s more proper to use “I” instead of “me” when referring to ourselves; however, such is not always the case. We seem to know which word to use when talking about ourselves, alone – You’d never hear someone say, “He really likes I” (instead of “He really likes me”), but we seem to get tripped up when there are other people involved. The trick to figuring out which pronoun to use to refer to yourself is to consider whether the sentence would make sense if the other person were removed from the sentence.

For example, take the sentence, “Brooke and I/me went to the store.” What if Brooke didn’t go? The sentence becomes either “I went to the store” or “Me went to the store.” Which sounds more correct? Unless you’re a cave person, it’s “I went to the store.” Use “I.”

Another example: “The bus driver told David and I/me that there weren’t any seats.” Let’s say David stayed home. Is it “The bus driver told I ..” or “The bus driver told me …” I bet you’ll recognize that the second option is the correct one. Use “me.”

When talking about more than one other person, we also sometimes get mixed up when deciding whether to use “him” or “he” (or “she” or “her”). The same rule for self-referencing pronouns applies here, too: Take out one of the people and see which option sounds right.

For example, let’s say someone asks where your friend went. You could say, “She and Mark went fishing.” Or, you could respond with, “Her and Mark went fishing.” Since “She went fishing” is the only sentence that makes sense without Mark, use “she.”

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  • Ann H

    Great stuff – I wish everyone would learn and use these rules because these mistakes drive me batty. I also am sick of the misuse of the reflexive pronoun, “myself.” It is often substituted for “me,” especially since people started trying to appear not-so-self-involved by not saying “me” as much. Just say “me” people; it’s not a dirty word!