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.

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  1. Denise

    Great reminders, by Carol which wrote this article. If I would have known about these errors sooner, I would have stopped making them.

    • Carol Tice

      LOL! See my note elsewhere in these comments about ‘companies who’ and ‘people that’…

    • Wendy

      My students think the phrase is “would of.” About 75% of them say, “On accident.”

      • Carol Tice

        Yow! There’s so many of these common errors about.

  2. Carol Beck

    1. Passive voice!

    Police recovered the body of a young girl reported missing a month ago.

  3. Cassie Journigan

    Great article. I need to bookmark it for quick reference. And I’m a recovering proofreader/editor. Thanks for your work.

  4. Virginia Nicols

    Grammar policing is bred into you, I’m afraid. Or at least it’s bred into me. Lately I have been jolted repeatedly by newscasters missing the use of the subjunctive in sentences like “It is important that you are there on time.” What’s your best resource when it comes to subjunctive in English?

  5. Joseph Skinkis

    I have trouble deciding between which and that.

    • Justin Boyer

      “That” should be used most of the time. “Which” only follows a comma. For a great discussion of this, check out On Writing Well by William Zinsser. A must-read for all writers.

      Grab the shoes that are in the closet.

      Grab the shoes, which are in the closet.

  6. Karen J

    I’ve been wondering, lately, whatever happened to the difference between “who” and “what” – even newspapers get it wrong as often as not.
    (Grammar Police-person since grade school!)

    • Carol Tice

      I see that one a lot in Den member drafts I review for classes. Lots of mentions of “Companies who” or “people that”…

  7. Judith Norris

    Hearing other people’s grammar misuses is not a problem for me. It’s a different story when I write. Sometimes a grammar gaffe goes completely unnoticed till well after it is typed and sent off. Looking at it later, I spot the error. Grammarly is a clever and much-appreciated gift.

  8. Diane Young

    When I was in high school, I had an old maid English teacher who made everyone in the class a grammar nazi. A misspelled word, a wrong verb tense, a dangling participle, mistaking lier for liar or lyre, typos, awkward or incomplete sentences, wrong or missing punctuation and–HOW DARE WE!–use dull words instead of vivid ones, were all shame-worthy and merited a poor grade. Many moons later, I’m still a grammar nazi.
    I can’t help it. It’s ingrained in me. Like you said, Linda, I’m one of those who is infuriated by people who write some incoherent, jumbled blather and are too lazy to proofread it. Editors don’t have time to clean up a mess. Their hand will either go straight to “DELETE” or the trash, whereas clean copy will more likely get an acceptance and perhaps another assignment.

    • Carol Tice

      LOL, when we complained in my high school English class, our teacher would start diagramming Latin sentences, to show us how easy we had it with mastermind English grammar. To this day, misplaced modifiers crack me up, as in ‘Running down the hall, my jacket caught on a locker.’ 😉

  9. Denise L Southard

    I guess no one liked my attempt at a little humor as my grammatically (and purposely) incorrect post has not shown up here. Sigh.

    • Carol Tice

      Denise, actually we are moderating comments, and must approve new users. I know the delay is annoying, but it’s our best alternative to having a ton of spam appearing in our comments. Now that your email address has been approved, you’re good to go.

  10. Carol

    One thing that drives me crazy is the misplacement of the word “only”. It should be adjacent to the word it modifies, not somewhere else in the sentence.

    The funniest and worst I ever saw was from a big ad agency in an ad for a pregnancy prevention pill.

    You can only get pregnant a few days in the month.

    Which literally means you cannot eat, you cannot sleep, you cannot talk, work, walk, play with your children, do anything at all except get pregnant during those days. It is in front of “get pregnant” so that is what is being limited.

    Put the “only” in front of the words it limits:

    You can get pregnant only a few days in the month.

    Once your ear and eye get tuned in on this error, you will notice it everywhere!

  11. Gabrielle

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

  12. Marc Hayot

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

  13. Kurt Buss

    Good advice. Thanks, Carol!


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