Many of us think we’ve got our grammar game down after we’ve left school. You’ve spent years writing essays, stories and coursework – what else is there to know?
But try as we might, grammar can be a tricky thing to get perfect 100% of the time, especially if our jobs don’t require us to write on a regular basis.
Now, with the use of grammar checking tools and spell-check in Word, few of us bother to delve deep into those grammatical golden rules we learned at school. But how many of us are able to say we’re grammar-perfect, without the help of these tools?
We’ve put together this list of the most common grammar mistakes to avoid, both in writing and in speech, so you can kick any bad grammar habits to the curb!
However, if you think you’re already grammar-perfect, have a go at our Common Grammar Mistakes Quiz to put your knowledge to the test.
Common grammar mistakes
1. They’re vs. Their vs. There
This is a relatively straightforward grammatical rule, but one that’s still easy to get wrong.
Briefly put, “they’re” is a contraction for “they are”, “their” refers to something owned by a group, and “there” refers to a place or position. You probably know the difference among the three, but when writing or typing quickly, it can be easy to gloss over. Just be sure to take a moment to check that you’re using the right ones in the right places at the right times.
“They’re going to love going there — I heard their food is the best!”
2. Your vs. You’re
This is another common one that trips people up. The difference between these two is owning something versus actually being something.
“Your” is possessive whilst “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.”
“You made it around the track in under a minute — you’re fast!”
“How’s your job going?”
3. Its vs. It’s
This one tends to confuse even the best of writers. “Its” is possessive whilst “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.”
It’s can often be confusing because “it’s” contains an ‘s which normally means something is possessive. But in this case, it’s actually a contraction.
“It’s getting pretty cold out here.”
“Its snowy landscapes are amazing!”
4. Incomplete Comparisons
When you’re asserting that something should be compared to something else, make sure you always clarify what that something else is. Otherwise, it can be confusing for readers to understand what the comparison actually means.
“Our car model is faster, better, stronger.”
Faster, better, stronger…than what?
The correct version would be: “Our car model is faster, better and stronger than ever.”
5. Passive Voice
Passive happens when the object of a sentence is put at the beginning instead of at the end. Though passive voice definitely has its place in some styles of writing, often it can make your writing come across as weak and unclear.
Here’s the above sentence again, using active voice:
“Passive happens when the writer puts the object of a sentence at the beginning, instead of at the end.”
In this example, the sentence uses a subject (the writer) to actively describe the object. Active voice can help your writing seem more alive and clear.
6. Dangling Modifiers
Dangling modifiers are when a descriptive phrase doesn’t apply to the noun that immediately follows it. It’s easier to see in an example:
“After declining for months, Jean tried a new tactic to increase ROI.”
The above sentence would imply that it is Jean who has been declining for months! In reality, the sentence was trying to say that actually, the ROI was declining.
To fix this problem, try flipping around the sentence structure (though beware of passive voice).
7. Referring to a Brand or Entity as ‘They’
It’s really common for brands and businesses to be referred to as “they”. After all, they are in reality made up of groups of people!
In English, we don’t identify a brand or an entity as “he” or “she” — so “they” seems to make more sense. However, brands and businesses are actually a collective single entity, so should be referred to as ‘”it”.
For example, it may be tempting to say:
“To keep up with their changing audience, Southwest Airlines re-branded in 2014.”
But grammatically, it’s just not accurate. A brand or an entity is “it.”
8. Possessive Nouns
Most possessive nouns will have an apostrophe – but where you put that apostrophe can be confusing.
All of the octopus’ tentacles grew back.
Here, “all” is suggesting that there’s more than one octopus. But the location of the apostrophe suggests there really is just one.
Here are some tips to help prevent apostrophe placement mistakes:
- If the noun is a plural, make sure you add the apostrophe after the s; e.g. “The kids’ homework.”
- If the noun is singular and ends in s, you should also put the apostrophe after the s. E.g: “The dress’ buttons.”
- If the noun is singular and doesn’t end in an s, add the apostrophe before the s. E.g: “The lizard’s tail.”
9. Affect vs. Effect
Effect with an “e,” isn’t used as a verb the way “affect” is. However, many people confuse the two and use them interchangeably, e.g:
“I was greatly effected by it.”
When you’re talking about the change itself – the noun – use “effect.” When you’re talking about the act of changing – the verb – use “affect.”
“It had a great effect on me.”
“It affected me greatly.”
10. Me vs. I
Most people understand the difference between the two of these…until they go to use one in a sentence!
When using these two words, you need to think about whether “I” or “me” is the subject or the object. If you are referring to yourself as the object of the sentence, then you should use “me”. If you are the subject in the sentence, then you should use “I”.
“When you are finished with that report, can you send it to Bill and me?”
“Bill and I are going to work on this report together.”
11. To vs. Too
We’ve all accidentally left the second “o” off “too” when typing or texting in a hurry. But sometimes, the mistake goes beyond that.
“To” is typically used before a noun or verb, and describes a destination, recipient, or action.
“My friend drove me to the cinema.” (Destination)
“Too,” on the other hand, is used as an alternative to “also” or “as well.” It’s also used to describe an adjective in extremes. Have a look:
“My colleague lives in town too.”
“She, too, likes the rain.”
“We both think it’s too cold outside.”
12. i.e. vs. e.g.
Many people use “i.e” and “e.g” interchangeably when trying to elaborate on a point, but they actually mean totally different things!
“i.e.” roughly means “that is” or “in other words”, whilst “e.g.” means “example given” or “for example.” The former is used to clarify something you’ve said, while the latter adds detail to a story through an example.
13. Who vs. Whom vs. Whose vs. Who’s
This one is a big one that so many people get wrong.
“Who” is used to identify a living pronoun. If you asked, “Who left the door open?” the answer could be a person, like myself (“I did”), or another living being (“the kids did.”
“Whom” is a little trickier. It’s usually used to describe someone who’s receiving something, like a letter – e.g. “To whom will it be addressed?” But it can also be used to describe someone on the receiving end of an action, like in this example:
“Whom did we invite to dinner?”
Whilst it may sound a little formal, this is the correct use of the word “whom”.
“Whose”, meanwhile, is used to assign ownership to someone. For example:
“Whose sweater is that?”
“Who’s,” on the other hand, is used to identify a living being. It’s a contraction for “who is” – here’s an example of how we might use it in a sentence:
“Who’s pitching for this big meeting?”
14. Alot vs. A lot vs. Allot
Contrary to what many people assume, “alot” is not a word. If you’re trying to say that someone has a vast number of things, you’d say they have “a lot” of things. And if you’re trying to say that you want to set aside a certain amount of money to buy something, you’d say you’ll “allot” $20 to spend.
15. Into vs. In to
Lots of people mix up “into” and “in to” when talking about the subject.
“Into” indicates movement (as in “Lindsay walked into the office”) and “in to” is used when the words “to” and “in” modify other parts of the sentence; e.g. “I’ve been called in to a meeting.”
16. Lose vs. Loose
“Lose” is a verb that means “to be unable to find something or someone, or to fail to win at a game or competition. It’s like losing your keys or losing a tennis tournament.
“Loose” is an adjective that means “not tightly fastened, attached, or held,” (according to Merriam Webster) – like loose clothing or a loose tooth.
17. Then vs. Than
“Than” is a conjunction used mainly to make comparisons – like saying one thing was better “than” another, e.g:
“My dinner was better than yours.”
“Then” is mainly an adverb used to situate actions in time, e.g:
“We made dinner, and then we ate it.”
18. Of vs. Have
It’s so easy to get this one confused because of the way we abbreviate or contract “should have”, “would have” and “could have” to “should’ve”, “would’ve” and “could’ve”.
This often leads to people writing “should of”, “would of” and “could of”- but none of these are correct.
19. Less vs. Fewer
“Less” and “fewer” are commonly switched around, even in advertisements like at the supermarket, when it says “10 items or less”.
Use “fewer” for things that are quantifiable, like “fewer sweets” or “fewer holidays”. Use “less” for things that aren’t quantifiable, like “less chocolate” and “less travelling”.
Semicolons are used to connect two independent clauses that, though they could stand on their own, are closely related. For example, you could use a semicolon in the sentence, “Call me tomorrow; I’ll be able to let you know then.”
In this instance, each clause could be its own sentence, but stylistically, it makes sense for them to be joined. (If there’s a coordinating conjunction between the two clauses. like “and,” “but”, or “or”, then use a comma instead.)
Semicolons can also be used to separate items in a list when those items contain commas themselves. For example:
The breakfast options today are: eggs and bacon, which is high in protein and low in carbs; or oatmeal and fruit, which is high in carbs but has more fibre.”
21. Compliment vs. Complement
These two words can be easily mixed up due to their similarity, not just phonetically but also their spelling.
If something “complements” something else, that means it completes it or enhances it. For example, a wine selection can complement a meal, and a complementary room upgrade can mean it enhances your stay.
The word “compliment”, meanwhile, refers to an expression of praise (as a noun), or to praise or express admiration for someone (as a verb). You can compliment your friend, or pay someone a compliment.
22. Farther vs. Further
People often use “farther” and “further” interchangeably to mean “at a greater distance.”
However, in most countries, there are actually subtle differences in meaning between the two. “Farther” is used to refer to physical distances, whilst “further” is used to refer to figurative and nonphysical distances.
For example, Paris is “farther” away than Madrid, whilst an athlete may fall “further” away from his or her goals. (The word “further” is actually preferred for all senses of the word in the U.K, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Nations.)
The word “further” can also be used as an adjective or as an adverb to mean “additionally.” For example, “I have no further questions.”
23. Between vs. Among
The word “between” is used to refer to two (or more) things that are clearly separated, and the word “among” is used to refer to things that aren’t clearly separated because they’re part of a group or collection of objects.
For example, you may choose between a red dress and a black dress, but you choose among all your dresses. You may walk between Centre Street and Broad Street, but you walk among your friends.
Funny grammar mistakes
Below are some rather funny and even annoying grammar mistakes that you might have come across.
Be honest – do you make any of these?
1. “I could care less”
Think about this one for a minute. By saying you could care less, you suggest you do care in the first place.
If you are trying to say you don’t care for something, then “I couldn’t care less” is correct because it communicates you have no more care to give.
“Irregardless” is unfortunately not a word. It’s simply “regardless,” as in “Regardless of what you think about grammar, you’ll look silly if you use it incorrectly.”
3. “Me” as the first word in a sentence.
Many people say sentences like, “Me and Becky met at Starbucks this morning”. However, if you remove “and Becky” from the sentence, you’ll see it doesn’t make much sense.
Instead, “Becky and I met at Starbucks this morning” is correct.
If you’re trying to say that someone is a sure winner, then “shoo-in” is what you really want to write. It’s because when you “shoo” something you’re urging it in a certain direction.
5. “Baited breath”
In this expression, the first word should actually be “bated,” which stems from the verb “abate,” meaning to stop or lessen. “Baited” relates to the bait used in fishing.
If you’re trying to say that someone is holding his breath, you can see that “bated breath” makes the most sense.
6. “Piece of mind”
If you want to share what you’re thinking with someone, this could work if you add “my” before “mind”, to imply that you’re offering your own point of view.
But if you’re trying to indicate tranquillity, then the correct phrasing is, “peace of mind”.
7. “Wet your appetite”
“Whet” means to sharpen or stimulate. So, it would be “whet your appetite”, not “wet”!
Many people use verb as a way to mean “thaw” something out or defrost it.
The best way to “unthaw” something would be to put it in the freezer. Is freezing what you mean, or thawing?
9. “Chock it up”
The correct version – “chalk it up” – comes from keeping score on a chalkboard. Some people (presumably from mishearing it) pronounce it as “chock it up”, which grammatically doesn’t make any sense.
10. “Through the ringer”
This expression is often used to imply that something or someone has been put through a hard time. However, the example above is missing a “w”.
A wringer is an old-fashioned mechanism which presses water out of clothes being washed by hand, a process indicative of giving someone a hard time.
11. “Given free reign”
This one is one of those tricky grammar mistakes that can easily catch people out.
It’s easy to see why “reign” looks correct, as reigning is something that kings, queens, and other sovereigns do. Yet the original saying refers to the reins that control a horse. When you give a horse “free rein” you let it go where it wants to go.
12. “Tow the line”
The original expression “toe the line” means to follow the rules. It comes from runners who put their toe to the line before running a race.
“Tow the line” is another mistake people commonly make when writing this idiom down. But to tow the line wouldn’t imply the same thing.
13. “A mute point”
Mute means silent, so would you really want to make a point that doesn’t say anything? A point that is “moot” is either debatable or doubtful. So, the correct term is, “a moot point”.
Common Grammar Mistakes in Speech
Below are some common grammar mistakes people typically make during speech. They might sound fine when heard in casual conversation, but the mistake becomes evident when they are written down!
How many of these have you heard or come across?
1. “First-come, first-serve.”
It should actually be “served.” Without the d, the phrase above suggests that the first individual who arrives will be the one who serves everyone, which is not the intended meaning.
2. “Emigrated to”
“Emigrate” and “from” always go together, as do “immigrate” and “to.” It doesn’t make sense, therefore, to say, “He emigrated to Australia.”
To emigrate is to come from somewhere, and to immigrate is to go to somewhere. The correct saying, therefore, is, “He emigrated from Australia” or “He immigrated to Australia.”
3. “All the sudden”
Whether you say “all of a sudden” or “all of the sudden,” the preposition “of” must be involved either way. If you’re really just trying to say that something happened “suddenly,” this is how you say it.
4. “The first-year anniversary”
Here, the use of the word “year” is redundant, as the anniversary in question is the first one to date. “The first anniversary” or “the 50th anniversary” are both sufficient.
5. “Worse comes to worse”
When somebody says, “Worse comes to worse”, what they are really saying is, “Worse comes to worst.” The “t” here is needed because it indicates that something has degraded from being negative (“worse”) to the lowest negative plane possible (“worst”).
6. “Hot water heater”
If anything, it’s a cold water heater. Just use “water heater.”
7. Overuse of “literally”
Lots of people love to use the word “literally” for hyperbole, particularly in speech. However, in 90% of cases, its use is incorrect.
“Literally” means “actually” or “in a strict sense.” So, if you say, “My head literally exploded,” you are technically lying.
The strong coffee drink brewed into a tiny cup is pronounced with an “s” in the first syllable and written “espresso.” Lots of people surprisingly get this wrong (apart from the ones who drink it!).
“Etcetera” is pronounced exactly how it is spelled. Lots of people brush over the first “t” to pronounce it “eccetera”, which is incorrect.
Common Grammar Mistakes Quiz
How to check grammar mistakes in Word
Did you know that you can check some (but not all) grammar mistakes in Microsoft Word?
Though different versions may vary slightly, follow the instructions below to check your grammar mistakes in Word:
- Click the ‘Review’ tab in the topmost line of tabs.
- Click ‘Check Document’, which is usually on the far left of the line of buttons that appear under the ‘Review’ tab, and has a little ‘ABC’ logo on it with a tick.
- If your document has any grammar mistakes, they will appear in an ‘Editor’ tab to the right side of the document. It may also show spelling mistakes, if there are any.
- To go straight to the grammar mistakes, click ‘Grammar’ under where it says ‘Corrections’. The small number next to it shows you how many mistakes Word picked up.
- Click through each mistake to see where you went wrong. Sometimes Word will pick up on stylistic choices that it reads as ‘mistakes’. If this is the case, just click ‘Ignore Once’ to move onto the next one.
Remember that Word won’t pick up on all of your grammar mistakes, especially if the spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are correct. So make sure to read over your work and check manually, too.
What do you think about these typical grammar mistakes? Are there any we didn’t mention? Join the conversation on Twitter – @TrueEducation_P.