Good grammar is often associated with a good education, a keen intelligence, and professional competence. But the English language is one of the trickiest in the world, not the least because it draws from so many other languages in its evolution. This results in rule inconsistencies, which in turn often results in confusion.
Want to build up your English grammar skills? Keep reading for a few common grammatical mistakes and how to avoid them:
1. Being inconsistent with your subject-verb agreement
The rule to follow is this: when you're referring to something plural, your verbs should be plural as well; and when your subject is singular, the same applies to the verb you use. For example:
Incorrect: My mother as well as my brother and sister are at home.
Correct: My mother as well as my brother and sister is at home.
Reasoning: Even if there are three people at home, the subject of the sentence is mother; the phrase as well as my brother and sister is parenthetical, meaning it's only an addition to the subject. You can also say: My mother, brother, and sister are at home to make the subject plural.
Incorrect: One of those problems have already been solved.
Correct: One of those problems has already been solved.
Reasoning: The subject is one; the phrase of those problems describes it.
Indefinite pronouns like the ones that end in -one (everyone, anyone, someone, no one), -body (everybody, anybody, somebody, nobody), -thing (everything, anything, something, nothing) can also be problematic. In general, treat these as singular. The same is true of pronouns like each, either, and neither. Use plural verbs with pronouns that clearly refer to more than one thing, such as both or many.
2. Using the wrong pronouns
Since we don’t have gendered personal pronouns in Filipino, we often mix up he/his/him versus she/hers/her. The good news is that it is now acceptable to use the previously plural they/their/them as a singular pronoun, either when you are unsure of the person’s gender or when the person has identified as nonbinary.
Also, if you are referring to a singular item, use singular pronouns like it, he, she, this or that. If you are referring to a plural noun, use plural pronouns like them, those, or these.
3. Using the wrong preposition
Just a refresher: Prepositions are words that show the relationship of nouns or pronouns to other words in the sentence; examples are after, before, on, in, below, above, etc. However, there are so many of these words that it can sometimes be tough to know which to use correctly in a given sentence.
For example, when are you on a vehicle such as a bus or a train, versus in it? And when is something under something else versus below or beneath it?
Unfortunately, study and practice is the best way to learn proper usage in this case. It’s also something you learn by hearing and reading the language more often, so try to pay attention to the way prepositional phrases are constructed when you are reading or listening to native English speakers.
4. Misplacing your apostrophes
An apostrophe commonly has three uses: it is used to indicate a noun’s possessive case (e.g., grandma’s house, planet’s gravitational force), the omission of one or more letters or numbers (e.g., isn’t, it’s, don’t, class of ’94), or plurals of lowercased letters (e.g., dot your i’s and cross your t’s, mind your p’s and q’s).
Things can get confusing when you mistake one purpose for the other. For example, the pronoun its is possessive, while the contraction it’s is short for it is. Another example is when people speak of decades as 80’s or 90’s (incorrect) instead of ‘80s or ‘90s (correct) to indicate the omission of the 19 in 1980s and 1990s.
5. Not using parallel structure
Parallelism, or the use of parallel structure, makes your writing clearer and more concise. It involves using the same grammatical form between two or more comparable items or ideas within a single sentence. For example:
Not parallel: This employee is professional, comes in on time, and has lots of friends on staff.
Parallel: This employee is professional, punctual, and friendly.
Not parallel: Upcycling trash saves money, the environment, and gives people a source of livelihood.
Parallel: Upcycling trash saves money, helps the environment, and gives people a source of livelihood.
6. Not being clear about comparisons
It’s well and good to make life Daft Punk and tout the virtues of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” but what or whom are we harder, better, or faster than? Comparisons are more effective when everyone understands what things or ideas are being compared. For example:
Incorrect: This mobile phone is slimmer, faster, and more powerful.
Correct: This mobile phone is slimmer, faster, and more powerful than previous models.
Correct: This mobile phone is slimmer, faster, and more powerful than all the other phones currently on the market.
The result may not sound as snappy, but the meaning is clearer.
7. Leaving your modifiers dangling
A modifier (or descriptive phrase) is said to dangle when the word that immediately follows it is not the one it is describing. For example:
Incorrect: After a two-year hiatus, the next season of my favorite show will start this summer.
Correct: After a two-year hiatus, my favorite show will begin its next season this summer.
Reasoning: The phrase “after a two-year hiatus” refers to the show and not its new season.
Incorrect: Taking advantage of the sunny weather, the beaches were very crowded.
Correct: Taking advantage of the sunny weather, people flocked to the beaches.
Reasoning: It’s not the beaches that took advantage of the sunny weather, but the people who went to them.
8. Misplacing your modifiers
Another common problem is misplacing the modifiers you use. This happens when a descriptive word or phrase is separated from the word it modifies or describes. Place a modifier as close as possible to the word it modifies; otherwise, the sentence may sound awkward or confusing. For example:
Incorrect: I put all the food for the road trip in airtight containers.
Correct: I put all the food in airtight containers for the road trip.
Reasoning: The phrase “in airtight containers” refers to the food rather than the road trip.
Incorrect: She almost knew it was time to leave.
Correct: She knew it was almost time to leave.
Reasoning: Almost refers to time to leave rather than knew.
9. Misusing your words or phrases
Are you using words or phrases (especially idiomatic expressions) correctly? For example, one common phrase is “yay or nay,” but the correct form is actually “yea or nay,” where "yea" refers to an archaic form of yes and is pronounced the same as "yay".
Homophones (or words that sound like each other but are spelled differently, such as there/they’re/their, bare/bear and peak/peek/pique) are a some of the easiest things to get wrong. So it takes extra discipline to make sure that the word doesn’t just sound right, it’s spelled correctly too.
Check out this list for common expressions you might be misusing:
10. Comma splicing in lieu of using semicolons or periods
Comma splicing refers to using a comma to join two phrases that can stand alone as sentences. Normally, a semicolon or period should be used, although other punctuation marks may also be appropriate. For example:
Incorrect: He couldn’t imagine what was taking her so long, she’d left an hour earlier.
Correct: He couldn’t imagine what was taking her so long; she’d left an hour earlier.
Correct: He couldn’t imagine what was taking her so long. She’d left an hour earlier.
Correct: He couldn’t imagine what was taking her so long, as she’d left an hour earlier.
Comma splicing can result in run-on sentences. If you prefer not to split the sentence into two or use a semicolon, consider editing it.