If you think you’re (whoops!) your minor grammar errors are no big deal, think again! These little mistakes drive your readers crazy. Especially if that person happens to be an English teacher, college prof, word nerd, punctuation purist, or professional editor! Reader’s Digest spoke with two grammar experts and uncovered the small mistakes you’re making that can make any knowledgeable reader irrepressibly furious. Pay attention to these not-so-insignificant, easy-to-fix, and all-too-common grammar errors.
Writer Katy Koontz, editor-in-chief at Unity Magazine and a book editor for best-selling authors, says her adrenaline spikes just thinking about common grammar errors. Koontz reveals, “mixing up ‘their’ and ‘there’ is probably my biggest pet peeve – you could add ‘they’re’ to the mix, too, but most mistakes involve the first two.” So, how can you make sure to use the right form of this common homonym (that’s a word pronounced the same, but with different meanings)? First, keep in mind, ‘they’re’ is a contraction for ‘they are,’ as in ‘they’re annoying.’ Next, ‘there’ can be an adverb, pronoun, or a noun indicating a state or condition. Gertrude Stein famously dissed her hometown while demonstrating the pliancy of the word ‘there’ when she wrote “there is no there there.” Finally, ‘their’ is the possessive form of the pronoun ‘they’– its inclusive form (as a pronoun for non-binary folks) was recently added to the dictionary.
How often do you substitute ‘your’ when you mean ‘you’re’? Koontz offers that “mixing up ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ is incredibly common – and incredibly annoying.” Word aficionados get particularly irked with this grammar snafu despite the irony in reading such examples as “Your an idiot!” or “You’re jokes are terrible!” Remember that ‘you’re’ is a contraction meaning ‘you are’. Got it? Great! You’re smart. ‘Your’ is the possessive form of ‘you’, as in ‘your big brain’, ‘your gorgeous prose’, or ‘your annoying error’. Switch these two forms at your peril.
Koontz admits to taking a pen out of her bag and correcting grammar on signs in public places. “I’ve only done it once or twice, but when a mistake makes my skin crawl I have no shame,” she says. Why do so many of us put ‘quotations’ around ‘certain’ words? “Some people use quotation marks for emphasis when instead they should underline (in a hand-lettered sign) or italicise,” she explains. So, make sure you italicise a word for emphasis. Quotation marks are totally unnecessary, and they make ‘zero’ sense.
Have you ever written ‘everyday’ when what you really mean is ‘every day’? It’s an everyday error that you might notice every day. Do you see the difference? Kendra Stanton Lee, an instructor of humanities at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, finds this mix-up to be one of her biggest pet peeves. ‘Everyday’, one compound word, is usually used as an adjective that means daily or ordinary. In contrast, the two separate words indicate ‘each day’. Stanton Lee says, “I tell my students the way to remember if it’s two words is to test whether the sentence makes sense to say ‘every single day.’”
Of all the punctuation marks, the comma is the most misused and abused. There are strict rules for commas, but they’re often forgotten, abandoned and revised. “People love commas,” Koontz says. “They love them so much they use them all the time, sprinkling them about their sentences with wild abandon. What annoys me the most with this is when people insert a comma between the subject and the verb. Those pandas, are so cute. Just no.”
This grammar error often shows up in writing when ‘that’ is used instead of ‘who’ when referring to a person, as in ‘She was the best editor that I ever had.’ It should be ‘who I ever had’ since you’re referring to a human person. Use ‘that’ in sentences like ‘It’s the grammar rule that always gets me.’ Koontz advises that you must always use ‘who’ when you’re talking about a person. She explains, “For example, she’s a woman who knows what she wants, not a woman that knows what she wants.” Got it?
Why is it so hard to keep these two straight? Koontz has an easy fix for this mix-up: she explains that you need to “remember that there is no apostrophe in ‘his’ or ‘hers’ so there wouldn’t be one in ‘its’ when it’s used to show possession.” ‘Its’ (without an apostrophe) is a possessive form; use ‘it’s’ when you mean ‘it is.’ Koontz offers “all contractions use apostrophes, so you’d definitely use an apostrophe if what you mean is ‘it is.’” English is amazing so it’s important not to violate its grammar rules.
Want to drive grammar experts crazy? All you have to do is use ‘I’ as the object of a preposition instead of ‘me.’ You probably do it all the time. Big win for grammar outlaws! Terrible annoyance for editors and other grammar purists. Koontz has a great tip for learning the difference between ‘I’ and ‘me’ and knowing which to use when: Koontz advises that “you’d say ‘Our friends threw a big party for Sam and me,’ not ‘for Sam and I.’ You wouldn’t say ‘They threw a big party for I,’ would you? If you could say ‘for me,’ then you would say ‘for Sam and me.’”
Writers frequently pop apostrophes where they don’t belong. As one example of this frequent mishap, Kootnz offers up, “The Smith’s aren’t coming to dinner. The Smiths are, though. An apostrophe shows possession, it doesn’t make a word plural. This shows up with decades a lot – the 1960s were tumultuous, not the 1960’s.”
In grammar, a contraction allows you to omit a letter or letters and use an apostrophe as a replacement. This offers a shortened, often more informal form. Stanton Lee says the use of ‘whole ‘nother’ is quickly becoming a serious problem. “When did we stop questioning the contractions we use?” she asks. Time to take it easy on ‘whole ‘nother’ to keep things less ‘nnoying.
Sign up here to get Reader’s Digest’s favourite stories straight to your inbox!