Go Went Gone … Urggg!   5 comments

What are your top five writing mistakes? Either mistakes you make or mistakes that make you cringe when you see them in print?

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Good, Better, Best … Never Let It Rest

Journalists are, supposedly, terrible spellers, but I came to the reporting game with good spelling and strong grammar. My training just enhanced that and make me more sensitive to common errors. That doesn’t mean I never make a mistake. It means I rarely let other people see my mistakes — I catch them in the editing process. I know how to make good writing into better writing, always striving for the best.

Grammarly asked users what their most frustrating grammar errors were and they said

  • Incorrect verb forms
  • Subject-verb disagreements
  • Run-on sentences
  • Comma splices
  • Pronoun antecedent disagreements

Watch for the other three fingers

I certainly have made these mistakes myself, but they do drive me crazy when I see them in other people’s writing — particularly if it’s already been published. Really, people, at least get a couple of beta readers to go over it before you put it on Amazon. By “people”, I mean me and anyone else who has made these mistakes.

Incorrect Verb Form

Irregular verb forms can be challenging because so often we make these errors while speaking and don’t even find them odd when we see them in writing. I was taught to take a pause and remember my credibility as a writer is hanging in a free-fire zone if I get this wrong. Here are the most common verb conjugation mistakes:

Is it “seen” or “saw”? Sometimes you can hear you’re wrong when you read it aloud.

“I seen the movie last week”

Or is it?

“I saw the movie last week”

You can hear the error easily.

But is it?

“I been there” or “I have been there.?”

Most people say “I been there”, but, when writing, it’s really “I have (in the past) been there.” That one really trips some people up and I read it in their books and not just in dialogue, where it is acceptable. Take a pause, folks, and think about it. Unless you’re writing narrative in a regional dialect, it pays to question the words that come out of your mouth and whether they belong on the page.

Subject-verb disagreement

In Spanish and American Sign Language (my other two languages) the subject of the sentence must correctly align with the verb conjugation for both number and gender. I especially found Spanish to be challenging because of this. Less so ASL probably because it’s a visual-gestural language.

In English, compound subjects follow a simple rule. They’re plural. “Mark and Jane” are two subjects (compound). “They” are compound. “We” are compound. So much easier. But then you run across irregular verbs. Oh, those can be so frustrating.

Consider “forces of nature.” Nature is one subject … right? So the verb would be “is”, right? But, no, it’s plural subjects. It’s the forces of nature. Nature itself may be one thing, but it has multiple forces.

“The forces of nature are knocking the heck out of deck furniture.”

I corrected a supervisor one time over “rights of way”. He was planning to send this letter somewhere important, where his credibility was at stake and I was trying to save his career. Trust me, I have that correct. It is definitely “rights of way” (plural). But he spent a good half-hour arguing with me that it’s just one “right of way”. Yes, we were talking about just one “rights of way” in front of a business, but it’s still plural, not singular. We finally looked it up in two grammar books and on the Internet and I won the debate. He’s an engineer. I wouldn’t argue with him about how to build a road, but he wanted to argue with a professional writer about grammar. It was hilarious.

Grammarly suggests you memorize irregular verbs, but you can usually reason them out — that’s how I do them, though I also still pull out my 30-year-old Associate Press Style Guide when I get stumped.

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence contains two or more independent clauses (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and that can stand alone as a sentence) that are not connected with correct punctuation. 

Though there are different kinds of run-on sentence errors, most often writers neglect to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.).

“I enjoy writing immensely but my deadline is looming I am starting to feel overwhelmed.”

It’s rare for me to include a run-on sentence even in a draft because I am a fan of Hemingway and trained as a journalist. Journalists HATE commas, so are told whenever we feel like putting one in a sentence, we should ask ourselves if we couldn’t use a period instead. If you can use a period instead of a comma, you should use the period. See, you don’t even have to memorize a rule for that, but there is a rule.

Each independent clause must be set apart from other independent clauses with punctuation or a comma and conjunction. Punctuation marks that are ideal for marking complete sentences are periods (full-stops), semicolons, and em dashes. Got it! Use it! Stop frustrating me!

Comma splices

Comma splices and run-on sentences are kissing cousins. Comma splices are really run-on sentences.

“He was very hungry, he ate a whole pizza.”

When a writer joins two independent sentences with a comma instead of separating them with a period or a conjunction, that’s a comma splice and it makes my head pound. Cut it out!

Pronoun-antecedent disagreement

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because he was in her way.”

When you use the pronouns “him” or “her”, readers need to know to whom those pronouns refer. Otherwise, they get confused.

Who is the second “he” in the above sentence — John or someone else? If the reader has to look back at the last sentence to be sure, you’ve not done your job as a writer correctly.

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because Tim was in Helga’s way.”

But what about me?

The one that drives me crazy in my own writing is actually a typo. Sometimes, my fingers get to moving so fast, they write a different word than the one I am thinking — “form” instead of “from”, “dog” instead of “god”, “left” instead of “felt”, and “who” instead of “how” — or the reverse of those. All the grammar-check programs in the world won’t catch them and I think it’s sometimes unavoidable. It happens so often when I’m “in the zone” and I just don’t notice it. I usually catch it when I have Word read the text aloud, but it’s frustrating because it’s so simple and yet so-really-hard to catch and correct. You have to catch an error before you can correct it.

5 responses to “Go Went Gone … Urggg!

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  1. Would it be ‘right of way’ if you’re talking about one particular footpath though? I would have thought ‘rights’ of way are for many footpaths? There is more than one force of nature, and so maybe it would be ‘force of nature’ if you’re talking about just one of the forces instead of all four? It gets complicated regarding the singular and plural!

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  2. Arrghh! grammar. I have a pathological fear of grammar. I blame the school teachers who spent all that time telling me I was stupid and useless, without offering any remedy. Fortunately, I know I have a problem and work hard to address it by every means I can.

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  3. those ‘wrong words in the right places’ are why I always listen to my books after the final edit and before publishing. The ear can often catch what the eyes glaze over.

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  4. Dialog is the exception to every rule. “Henry n me, we seen Larry an ’em over to the roadhouse tellin’ Chester he ain’t got no rights to walk downtown after it come up on dark.” But then, this is Texas.
    The oblique reference to him and her and he and she is always a pain. Right in there with the misaligned sentence. Who fell down, the building or the inspector? A constant soyrce of amusement on broadcast news.
    But and and don’t always get you a comma. Could I have said that the other way around? It’s silly to have awkward sentences with all the possibilities for glue. Which one is correct and which one did our brains fix for us when we encountered it?
    What kills me is people like us complaining and not proofing before we pull the trigger.

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  5. I enjoyed this recap of grammatical errors. Some things in English grammar have changed since I was at school. I know about them because of helping my sons with their English schoolwork and from having my own work edited.

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