Writing craft

10 common grammar mistakes even great writers make

There are far more than 10 common grammar mistakes that even the greats make. Mistakes in the drafting stage aren’t catastrophic. After all, you’ll edit your novel at a later point in time. A clean manuscript appeals to agents and editors, though, so read on for 10 common grammar mistakes you can learn to identify and avoid.

There are far more than 10 common grammar mistakes that even the greats make. Mistakes in the drafting stage aren’t catastrophic. After all, you’ll edit your novel at a later point in time. A clean manuscript appeals to agents and editors, though, so read on for 10 common grammar mistakes you can learn to identify and avoid.

Even though some say you should break all writing rules, you need to master the rules of writing first. It’s one thing to make a quirky grammatical choice and another to make an error out of ignorance.

Avoid these 10 common grammar errors:

  1. Confusing ‘who’ and ‘whom’This is an easy mistake to make, but it’s also easily corrected. “Who” is used for the subject of a sentence and “whom” for the object. Here’s the easy part. If you can substitute “he”, “she”, or another noun, “who” should be used. If instead you would use “her” or “him”, “whom” should be used.Who is the best teacher? She is. To whom should I give the best teacher award? To Her.
  2. Mixing up ‘who’ and ‘that’This is a common error but even more easily corrected than “who” and “whom”. Use “who” for people and “that” for things.Adam is the one who asked about the engagement ring. This is the engagement ring that he meant.
  3. Muddling ‘which’ and ‘that’This one is a bit more confusing. Use “that” when it is essential to the sentence. Use “which” when you are qualifying information that is not necessarily essential.I don’t vacation at hotels that don’t allow pets. This hotel, which has a nice beach view, is not a good option for me because it doesn’t allow pets.
  4. Confusing ‘lay’ and ‘lie’This is a common grammar mistake because the past tense of “lie” is “lay”. In present tense, “lie” is something the subject of the sentence does, and it does not require an object. “Lay” in the present tense is a transitive verb, however, and this is used to describe an action done to someone or something.I lie around all day. I lay the tray on the counter carefully.NB: Remember the past tense of the verb ‘to lie’ is the same word as the present tense transitive verb for the same: Yesterday, I lay around all day. The past tense of the transitive verb lay, however, is ‘laid’: That afternoon, I laid the tray on the counter carefully.
  5. Using dangling modifiersThe clause that begins a sentence has to have the same subject as the sentence itself. Walking down the street, the trees were battered by last night’s storm tells us that the trees themselves were walking down the street. Corrected, it might read like this: Walking down the street, we noticed that the trees were battered by last night’s storm.
  6. Using ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’ (and vice versa)This is another common but easily-fixed grammar error. “Fewer” refers to things that are quantifiable (can be counted); “less” is for things that cannot be counted.I’d like less milk in my coffee and fewer than three spoonfuls of sugar.
  7. Using the wrong pronoun in the first personOften when writing about oneself and another person, writers default to “I” believing it to always be correct. However, use “I” only if it is the subject of the sentence, not the object. The easiest way to figure this one out is to drop the other person from the sentence and see which word fits. Sharon and I flew to Los Angeles. The film director gave the script to Sharon and me. Note that if you remove “Sharon and” from both sentences, the right choice becomes obvious.The film director gave the script to me (not I)

  8. Always using ‘like’ for comparison instead of ‘as though’These two words are not interchangeable. “Like” is frequently used improperly in place of “as though”. “Like” can only be followed by a noun or pronoun. “As though” only precedes a verbal clause, because ‘as though’ creates the expectation of an action-based event:She looks like my mother. I cried as though I had lost my best friend.
  9. Avoiding the verb ‘to be’ to avoid passive voiceMany people make common grammar mistakes by assuming that a passive sentence is any sentence that uses a form of the verb “to be.” In fact, passive voice is simply a sentence in which the object appears as the subject of the sentence.The house was given to me by my Great Aunt is still passive voice (‘the house’ is the object of the sentence and I, the speaker, am the subject. There is no ‘to be’).
  10. Avoiding passive voice completelyMany people believe passive voice is always ‘weak’ or ‘bad’. In fact, passive voice may effectively convey a certain rhythm or mood. Sometimes the object of a sentence is the most important part. Sometimes the passive construction helps to convey a character’s passivity.

What kind of basic grammar errors drive you mad?

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By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

13 replies on “10 common grammar mistakes even great writers make”

I would say my problem is the tense. it freaks me out how can I combine the past and the present in the same story. should we have to keep one tense ?

You don’t have to keep the same tense at all, you can do flashbacks and flashforwards throughout your novel. However, it can be disorientating if you do them too often, I’d limit them to once a chapter.

This is a wonderful post! It clarifies a lot of grammatical miscues I have researched numerous times in the past. You have simplified some things for me that past writing classes failed at. Thank You!.

Hi Mai, I know, it’s confusing, especially when the ‘wrong’ form of lay is so widely used. Basically, the present tense of the word ‘lay’ can only be used to describe action *on* something. So a chicken lays an egg, because the egg is the object that the chicken is placing. That’s why if somebody tells you they’re ‘laying in bed’, you can reply ‘what are you laying, an egg?’ It should rather be ‘lying in bed’ 🙂

Lie and lay is commonly misused by the providers I do transcription for. Straight leg raising, where the patient actually making the leg go up always confuses Word (except just now when I wanted to figure out why it was bothered by it).

This article was useful – thank you.

I still find grammar difficult though. Often times I will write a sentence and read it back, only to feel there is something wrong with it somewhere – somewhere that’s difficult to pinpoint exactly.

My gut tells me that I’ve broken a grammatical rule, something fundamental, which doesn’t really help.

So I usually end up re-writing a sentence from scratch. It is frustrating; not understanding a problem, and thus not being able to learn from it.

Thanks for the tips! The article you share is very useful.
Writing is a specialty that requires both skills and talents. You learn by doing, by committing errors, and afterward observing where you turned out badly.

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