10 Tips for Sharp Writing That’ll Please the Grammar Police


Writing Tips to Avoid the Grammar Police. Makealivingwriting.comYou can’t tell who they are until something happens. Something evil. Something so terrible it’s almost an unspeakable crime. But they’re everywhere. And if you’re not a careful proofreader of your own writing, you may one day find yourself face to face with the grammar police.

And that’s no laughing matter.

The uncommissioned members of the grammar police are outraged by misplaced commas. They hyperventilate over misspellings. And they’ll shake their fist at the sky over a dangling participle…sometimes muttering words we can’t repeat.

For freelance writers, there’s an often overlooked factor that kills some client relationships and undermines your credibility: grammar and punctuation mistakes.

Even seasoned writers are at risk of letting those mistakes pass through the final draft. And I guarantee you, that if you do, the grammar police will find you. They’ll slash your work with a red pen and virtually edit your writing into oblivion. Don’t let that happen.

Here are the 10 most common writing mistakes to watch for, and how to correct them before the grammar police hunt you down.

1. dangling participle

INCORRECT: Reported missing a month ago, police have recovered the body of a young girl.

CORRECT: The body of a young girl reported missing a month ago has been recovered by police.

Verb forms ending in -ing or -ed are called participles. They can be used as adjectives, either alone, or as the first word in a descriptive phrase. A common error is to follow a participial phrase with the wrong noun, as in the example above. The noun being described by “reported” is “girl,” not “police.”

2. if I would / if I had / if I did

INCORRECT: If I would have known about the party, I would have gone to it.

CORRECT: If I had known about the party, I would have gone to it.

When speaking of an event that might have happened in the past but didn’t, we use an if clause containing the helping verb “had” followed by a main clause containing “would”: If I had known you were coming, I would have baked a cake. This use is sometimes called the “third conditional.”

3. Microsoft is/are

American usage: Microsoft is settling with another software distributor. British usage: Microsoft are settling with another software distributor.

In British English, collective nouns and the names of organizations can take either a singular or plural verb, depending upon whether the entity is being thought of as a single thing or as a collection of individual things or persons. In American usage, such words almost always take a singular verb.

4. which / who

INCORRECT: That’s the boy which started the fire.

CORRECT: That’s the boy who started the fire.

The relative pronoun which stands for inanimate things only.

5. who / that

INCORRECT: The woman that sold you the car didn’t own it.

CORRECT: The woman who sold you the car didn’t own it.

Although many speakers and writers consider the words who and that be interchangeable, others prefer to reserve who for speaking of humans or humanized creatures, and that for referring to inanimate entities. Sometimes there are stylistic reasons to use that to stand for a person, but in general, use who when referring to people.

6. comma splice

INCORRECT: The fire truck tore around the corner, flames spurted from the burning car.

CORRECT: The fire truck tore around the corner. Flames spurted from the burning car.

A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined by a comma.

7. comma missing after introductory clause

INCORRECT: If I were you I’d do what you have done.

CORRECT: If I were you, I’d do what you have done.

An adverbial clause that begins a sentence is set off by a comma: When the rains came, everyone stayed inside.

8. comma missing after introductory words/phrases

INCORRECT: To be perfectly honest I don’t like her one bit.

CORRECT: To be perfectly honest, I don’t like her one bit.

Single words and phrases that begin a sentence are set off by a comma: Yes, you may go. In my opinion, James Fenimore Cooper is unjustly ignored.

9. comma after main clause

INCORRECT: The King of Siam held absolute power over his subjects, when Anna Leonowens lived at his court.

CORRECT: The King of Siam held absolute power over his subjects when Anna Leonowens lived at his court.

When the adverbial clause follows the main clause, a comma is not usually needed.

10. comma instead of semi-colon

INCORRECT: We missed the bus, we did not know what to do.

CORRECT: We missed the bus; we did not know what to do.

Using a semi-colon to join closely-related main clauses is another means of avoiding a comma splice. If the clauses are very short, commas may be used: He came, he saw, he conquered.

Correct mistakes before the grammar police hunt you down

If you don’t want the grammar police to hunt you down, leave time to proof your own work. Study these common mistakes. Correct your work. And talk to your clients about their editing and review process. They may be your last defense to ward off an attack by the grammar police.

Are you a writer, member of the grammar police, or both? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Maeve Maddox  was the editor of DailyWritingTips.com for many years. Download 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid to identify and correct more writing mistakes you might be making.

Avoid writing scams: Join Freelance Writers Den


  1. Kurt Buss

    Good advice. Thanks, Carol!

  2. Marc Hayot

    Good post. I know that I have probably made half of those mistakes befor e

  3. Gabrielle

    Thank you for this article. Commas can be tricky critters and I still find myself checking the rule book now and then.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Related Posts

You CAN Write a Query Letter That Gets a “Yes”: 5 Resources

Freelance writer getting a gig after learning to write a query letter.

Love them or hate them, queries are one of the most important marketing tools for any freelancer who wants to write for magazines. And the skills you learn from writing a good query letter also help business writers and copywriters pitch their potential clients.

If you’ve been sending queries off into space and never getting a reply, you may think it’s impossible to break into new magazines. But it’s not true! Editors are always looking for new talent.

To help you learn to write a query letter that will get you the gig, we’ve pulled together a collection of five of our best posts on pitching:

Can’t Write? Try These 9 Ideas for Writing Motivation

It’s the bane of every freelance writer’s life: You know you need to sit yourself down and get some writing done, but nothing happens. The writing motivation just isn’t there. Sometimes, you can't even make yourself sit down with the computer -- even if you...