11 Common Grammar Mistakes Sabotaging Your Writing

Daniel Midson-Short
February 6, 2020
19 mins

Words are tools. We use them to think, to speak, and to write.

We use words and sentences to influence people to do what we want and to make our way in the world.

Speaking is a different skill from writing, and for most of us, we stop practicing our writing skills as soon as we close our school books.

The ability to write matters. The number of monthly texts we all send has increased by 7700% over the last decade. Email is a now huge part of how we do business. So is online marketing. All these tasks require writing.

You’ve probably had the experience of seeing a typo in an email or on a social media post. While we might forgive a person, we’re tougher on a business.

When it comes to business writing, either in proposals, emails, blog articles, or advertisements, small mistakes can influence the decision to buy. In fact, typos in Google Ads lead to 70% fewer clicks.

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Why Are We All So Bad at Grammar?

Remember the spelling bee at school?

Why was there no ‘grammar bee’?

In school, learning to spell is an essential skill. Not so with Grammar.

When it comes to proofreading, most writing tools (Microsoft Word, Google Docs) focus first on correct spelling. Grammar is usually a secondary consideration.

Add to this the fact that Grammar is confusing! You have to know the uses of a verb, a noun, an adverb, a pronoun, a semicolon, an adjective, split infinitives, dangling modifiers, possessive form, a plural form, prepositional phrases, and punctuation. Sheesh!

And here’s the real kicker: because most people have poor grammar skills, they can’t even tell when grammatical errors happen. So the cycle continues.

Grammatical mistakes are sometimes seen as a sign of laziness. Readers soon become grammar police, get distracted by errors, and stop reading. It’s an easy way to lose respect and influence if you have poor Grammar.

But there is good news. Being grammatically correct only takes a few edits to make something stand out from the crowd.

And when you take the time to work on your Grammar (or use proofreading tools like Grammarly), you can improve almost overnight.

In this article, we’ll look at 11 easy ways to fix common grammar errors and start sounding smarter immediately.

1. Passive Voice Vs. Active Voice

This sentence is being written in a passive voice. A writer with an active wrote this sentence.

Active and passive voice are some of the most confusing parts of Grammar. And they’re also the most hotly contested. Does active and passive matter? Is it just nitpicking?

You be the judge:

An active voice means the subject is doing something. A passive voice has something done to them. They’re similar but not the same.

For example:

The dog ran to fetch the stick. (active)

The stick was fetched by the dog. (passive)

An active voice makes the sentence feel alive. More definite. There is clarity about who is doing what.

It takes practice to build the habit of writing in an active voice. And sometimes you might choose not to follow the rules.

A tool like Grammarly Premium does a great job of proofreading and checking for passive voice in your writing. Use it for a few weeks, and you’ll notice yourself writing more active sentences.

Grammarly spots passive voice issues too.
Example of Grammarly detecting passive voice.

2. Commas, Colons, and Semicolons

In written language, punctuation is like the wild west. People throw around commas, apostrophes, colons, and semicolons with reckless abandon.

However, grammatically correct punctuation is essential if you want to add tone to your writing.

Here’s the best example I know of how punctuation can change a sentence:

A woman without her man is helpless.

A woman: without her, man is helpless!

Notice how punctuation changed the meaning and tone of the sentence? The first sentence sounds like a horrible chauvinistic thought from the 1920s. The second sentence echoes the plot from every sitcom of the 1990s (and likely some universal truth).

A comma is useful to break up a sentence or to include an additional point.

But, don’t, overuse commas. Or, you sound, like Christopher Walken, in print.

One possible grammar mistake deriving from comma use is the fabled comma splice. This is a term for joining two sentences with a comma and no conjunctions.

While it can sometimes read fine on its own, a sentence with a comma splice is usually overloaded with more information than needed.

It’s best to sometimes split sentences apart into smaller pieces that are more digestible.

A colon signifies there is more information ahead:

The most confusing piece of punctuation is the semicolon; it is halfway between a comma and a period (sometimes called a full stop).

Most writers will use a semicolon where a period would do better. Or they add a comma, thinking that it will break up the sentence.

One simple grammar rule is to use less punctuation by shortening your sentences. Say more with less.

But, if you do need to add personality to your writing, some well-placed commas, colons, and semicolons can do the trick.

Grammarly punctuation issues around misplaced commas.
Grammarly checking punctuation use.

3. The Oxford Comma

There is one more point of grammatical contention when it comes to commas.

The Oxford comma (sometimes called Serial comma) is a comma used at the end of a list. It is immediately followed by ‘and’ or ‘or.’

Omitting the Oxford comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

For example, here is a sentence missing the Oxford comma:

I went to the baseball game with my brothers, Tim and Eric.

This sentence signifies that your brothers named Tim, and Eric went to a baseball game with you.

In contrast, here is the same sentence with an Oxford comma:

I went to the baseball game with my brothers, Tim, and Eric.

This sentence now signifies that you went to a baseball game with your brothers and two other people named Tim, and Eric.

It’s a subtle difference in punctuation, and depending upon different grammar rules, it is both acceptable to use or not use the oxford comma.

4. Using ‘They’ to Describe an Entity

It’s easy to think of a business or a brand as having a personality. After all, we all have our favorites, and there are people who work for the company.

So why isn’t a business (or any entity) supposed to be labeled as ‘they’?

In the world of correct Grammar, any business, brand, or entity (i.e., something that has a name that is not alive itself) is labeled ‘it.’

So, for example:

Apple received a lot of market pressure to increase the size of their phones. (Incorrect)

Apple received a lot of market pressure to increase the size of its phones. (Correct)

Subtle, but the more you use this distinction in your writing, the more natural it will feel.

5. Me Vs. I

It’s very complicated to explain yourself in text. When speaking, you call yourself ‘me’ or ‘I’ to let a person know you’re talking about yourself.

When writing about yourself, which is the correct word to use? Well, of course, it depends on the context.

‘I’ is describing you as the subject:

I am going to go home.

I think this is a good idea.

‘Me’ is describing yourself as an object:

It’s time for me to go home.

This idea makes sense to me.

You’ll usually see ‘I’ used at the start of a sentence, whereas ‘me’ works better in the middle or at the end.

When speaking these sentences out loud, they make a lot more sense. You wouldn’t say ‘me am going to go home’ or ‘it’s time for I to go home.’

So as a rule, when unsure which works, try speaking the sentence out loud. The answer will become a lot clearer.

A significant difference to note is that pronouns have two additional forms that, while rare, are equally vital to developing proper English grammar skills. These are the possessive pronoun and its adjective form. For the first person singular (I), they are “mine” and “my,” respectively. Consider this example sentence:

“This is a house of mine.”

While the sentence seems slightly unwieldy, it’s grammatically correct. There are other ways to deliver the same message by using a possessive adjective. You will notice how the sentence structure will vary as the form of the pronoun changes.

6. i.e. Vs. e.g.

For grammar snobs out there in the world, this mistake immediately makes them roll their eyes.

You can blame good old Latin for the confusion here, as both these abbreviations are linked back to that dead language.

‘E.g.’ originally stood for ‘exempli gratia,’ which translates to ‘for example.’

‘I.e.’ is an abbreviation of ‘id est’ which means ‘in other words.’

When giving a specific example of something, you are describing something concrete. When using other words to explain you are usually simplifying or adding another dimension to the idea.

Technically, the two have some crossover. But the easiest way that I learned to remember to difference is that ‘e.g.’ sort of phonetically links to egg-xample. (Ok, that’s a stretch, but you get the idea).

If e.g. vs. i.e. conundrum still confuses you, fear not: a simple proofread with a tool like Grammarly will pick up this issue and help you avoid one of the most common grammatical errors.

7. Than Vs. Then

Depending on your accent, the words’ then’ and ‘than’ can sound egg-xactly (see above if you don’t get it) the same. But they are very different in meaning.

‘Than’ is a comparison word. You use to show a difference between something.

‘Then’ denotes time. Specifically, it talks about the past.

It’s a good distinction to remember, and a simple example shows how it works:

Back then, my brother was taller than me.

Always ask yourself if you are comparing something when using ‘than’. And remember to describe a time that has past with the word ‘then’.

8. Sentence Fragments

Did you know that the shortest complete sentence in the world is ‘I am.’?

It’s a complete sentence because it contains a subject (I) and a verb (am).

Of course, most sentences will be a lot longer than two words. But it’s very easy to create a sentence that sounds cool that is missing one of these two essential components.

When a sentence is missing a verb or a subject, it is called a sentence fragment.

You will see a lot of sentence fragments in text messages:

‘On my way.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’

‘Chat later.’

They work in text form because often in casual speech, we shorten our phrases. However, if you were aiming to be grammatically correct, you could improve these easily.

‘I’m on my way to meet you.’

‘It doesn’t matter what you choose.’

‘I will chat with you later today.’

Sentence fragments are sometimes acceptable in written form. Especially in fiction, as they add personality to the writing. If you are using quotation marks to quote a person, then grammar rules can also be broken.

In business, it is always better to aim for complete sentences in your writing. That way, the message is clear, and you appear more definite in your thinking.

Grammarly flagging a sentence fragment mistake.
Grammarly detecting sentence fragments.

9. Incorrect Capitalization

We all know that ALL CAPS signifies shouting in text messages. This recent evolution of capital letters only adds to the confusion some people feel.

Capital letters are used for several reasons:

  • To begin a sentence.
  • To show the name of a person or a location (e.g., Jim went to New York)
  • When abbreviating a word or using an acronym (e.g., USA)
  • When you write a trademarked product (e.g., Coca Cola)
  • When a person has a title (e.g., Queen Elizabeth)
  • When listing the names of vehicles, or even movies (e.g., Titanic)

One place where capital letters are confusing is in headings and subheadings of articles. Depending upon the style guide that you follow, here are the general rules:

Capitalize the first and last word of the heading

Capitalize each other word that is not:

  • A conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet)
  • An article (a, an, the)
  • A preposition (at, by, for, in, of, on, off, to, up)

Of course, if any of these words are at the start of the heading, they should be capitalized.

For example: An Easy Way to Fix Your Grammar in Five Minutes

10. It’s Vs. Its

We have already talked about entities being described as an ‘it’. Now let’s complicate things further by adding ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ to the mix.

Here’s all you need to remember:

‘It’s’ is an abbreviation of ‘it is.’ (e.g., It’s a beautiful day today.)

‘Its’ is describing the ownership of something. (e.g., The dog chased its tail.)

These two are very easy to mess up, and a simple proofread or running a Grammar checking tool will spot them easily.

11. Incorrect Compound Words

This final grammar error is a common one. Some words have a different meaning when they are combined compared to when they are separated.

Here are some examples:

set up vs. setup

log in vs. login

make up vs. makeup

Even though they sound the same, you can see the meaning is different. The separated words are verbs, which explain an activity.

The compound words are nouns that describe something.

The easiest way to remember the difference is to think whether you are describing an action or an item. That will help to use the grammatically correct word in each context.


Grammar is a learned skill. Nobody is born with perfect Grammar, and it takes trial and error to learn what works best.

Using tools like Grammarly is an excellent way to begin correcting and learning better Grammar. The tool will explain why something is a grammatical mistake and how to fix it. The more you use it, the fewer grammar errors you will make.

If you’re in a company trying to get your employees to write cohesively in all circumstances, then Writer should be your better assistant of choice. It heavily favors unified brand identity and messaging, but doesn’t skimp on providing elaborate grammar checker capabilities.

One more tip: focus on one grammar skill at a time. If you use a lot of passive voice in your text, try working on being more active. Do this for a few weeks, and you will begin to form a habit.

Remember that proper Grammar is both art and science. The modern rules that apply to casual text messaging don’t work in the business world. Common grammar errors can cause you to lose influence and respect.

However, a little bit of extra time focusing on Grammar can help you become a more confident, influential communicator.