Grammar problems

When I proofread documents, or even just reading a blog or forum post, there are certain mistakes that I come across time and time again. Some of them crop up across a variety of documents written by individuals of differing levels of familiarity with written English. Below I have collected the most egregious and the most common, and explained what is wrong about them.

Homophones

Homophones are words which sound the same but which are spelled differently, such as “right” and “write”. English is full of them. The best known are probably their/there/they’re and your/you’re – and if you don’t know which of those is the correct one to use, there are plenty of places on the internet to find out so I won’t rehash it. But I also come across right/write/rite, cord/chord, led/lead and others.

The best way to avoid them it just to check when you use them, or with those you have trouble with, to learn a sentence to help you remember. I’ve written out a few such sentences for friends, such as:

“The children kicked their ball into the neighbour’s garden. They’re going over there now to fetch it.”

“The teacher led me to the large periodic table on the wall and pointed at the symbol for lead, Pb.”

“I turned right and came right up against a protest. ‘It’s our right’, I saw someone write on a sign, ‘to carry out our religious rites.’ Amongst the crowd I saw a playwright I recognised.”

If in doubt, check the dictionary.

Apostrophes

This is probably the most common complaint amongst those interested in correct grammar. It’s easy to get wrong because there are a lot of rules. Here’s a summary of the main points:

If someone owns something, use an apostrophe: Bob’s car, Emily’s passion for music, John’s ambition. Is the owner’s name ends in s, like James, just put an apostrophe after the s and don’t add a second one: James’ boss. It looks a bit odd because that’s not how it is said, but that’s how is should be written.

The above applied unless the thing doing the owning is represented by “it”, in which case don’t use an apostrophe: the rabbit vanished down its burrow.

If letters are missed out, use an apostrophe: did not becomes didn’t, are not becomes aren’t, he has becomes he’s, should have becomes should’ve, it is becomes it’s.

If the word is a plural, don’t use an apostrophe. Most people seem to have grasped this for the majority of words like apples, roads or trees; but with some words that end in o or i, some people forget, so what should be written paninis comes out as panini’s; or what should be potatoes is incorrectly written as potatos or potato’s. The reason behind these is probably because “paninis” looks a bit odd, as if it should be pronounced differently, while “potatoes” (and “tomatoes”) follow a slightly different rule to everything else.

If something which is plural owns something, put the apostrophe after the s: “the dogs’ leads” refers to the leads of the dogs. The exception to this is where the plural doesn’t need an s in the first place: “the children’s toys” refers to the toys of the children; “sheep’s wool” refers to wool from an unknown number of sheep, since sheep is both the singular and the plural.

Capitalised words

This is something I tend to come across more when reading documents written by non-writers, people unused to using continuous prose. Such documents are written like legal documents – their authors capitalise certain defined terms such as “client” and “stakeholder”, as well as job titles and other terms they deem important. Thus I often end up with a sentence where almost half of the words begin with capital letters when only the first word and occasionally one other word actually need it.

When proofreading these documents I have had to learn from context, since sometimes a phrase encapsulates a named initiative or group and thus does require capital first letters. Generally, though, nouns which describe something non-specific do not need to be capitalised. So when talking about what the author will do for a client, client itself remains lower case, but the name of the client, say, Fred and Sons, has capital letters because it is a name.

Incidentally, “clients” is the word I correct the most in professional documents, because if someone has written “we will meet the Clients needs” then I not only need to decapitalise it, but also add an apostrophe according to whether there is one client or several clients.

Incomplete sentences

While sentences which lack an object or even a verb can have their place in fiction in establishing pace or characterisation, in non fiction they should be avoided. I have come across CVs where the writers have put something like “Has a lot of experience in the building industry.” Who has a lot of experience? Brad Pitt? The Queen? Aristotle? Or worse – “Have a lot of experience…” because while it is obvious only “I” could go before “have”, it hasn’t been put there.

If you’re writing a CV, put yourself as the object of every sentence, don’t avoid using an object so you don’t have to decide between writing “I did this” and “John did this”. Pick whichever is more appropriate based on what the CV is for and use it.

I also find bullet lists tend to be full of incomplete sentences. Depending on the context, this can be okay. But be consistent. Don’t make it such that the first three points are in note form, and the last two are in complete sentences. And if you start the list off with “I have:” then make sure each bullet point follows on as if “I have” was at the start of each and every bullet point. If “have” doesn’t fit all bullet points, instead move things around so each bullet point works in context.

If in doubt, read each bullet point out loud, starting with the lead-on bit you put at the top of the list. Of course, if you use “the following is a list of things I have done:” then it doesn’t need to follow on like a sentence, but keep your bullet points consistent.

There are other types of incomplete sentence. A sentence lacking a verb is technically not a sentence at all. Whether it can be used depends on context. On a forum, in a blog post or as part of a story or poem is generally fine, but if it’s in a CV or professional document you will want to find a verb that fits, remove the non-sentence, or incorporate it into the previous or following sentence, depending on context.

Colon and dash before a list

This is more of a pet peeve than a common and egregious offence. Sometimes I see something like:

Phone:- 01234 567890

Or:

The client will receive the following benefits:-

Please don’t do this. In some fonts it looks ugly because the hyphen doesn’t align perfectly with the centre of the colon. But even where it does, it is unnecessary. Two punctuation marks are used where one is all that is needed. This happens nowhere else that I know of. Even when a questioning exclamation is made and someone uses !? instead of an interrobang, I can forgive that because interrobangs aren’t found on a standard keyboard. But :- is simply redundant. In both the above examples, just the colon is sufficient, or for the phone number a hyphen is also acceptable. But both together? It is wrong, inefficient and ugly.

So those are five of the grammatical errors I come across the most and why they are wrong. What do you have problems with? What do you cringe at when you read them?

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