editing / writers tips / writing

Five Grammar Errors that Make you Look Dumb



I didn’t come up with these. They’re from the Copyblogger. This is Part II of Brian’s rant against poor grammar in writing. If you’re a bibliophile or a neologist or any of those types that love words, read on:

Five Grammatical Errors that
Make You Look Dumb

by Brian Clark

One thing blogging and good copywriting share is a conversational style, and that means it’s fine to fracture the occasional rule of proper grammar in order to communicate effectively. Both bloggers and copywriters routinely end sentences with prepositions, dangle a modifier in a purely technical sense, or make liberal use of the ellipsis when an EM dash is the correct choice—all in order to write in the way people actually speak.

But there are other mistakes that can detract from your credibility. While we all hope what we have to say is more important than some silly grammatical error, the truth is some people will not subscribe or link to your blog if you make dumb mistakes when you write, and buying from you will be out of the question.

Here are five mistakes to avoid when blogging and writing web copy.

1. Your vs. You’re

This one drives me insane, and it’s become extremely common among bloggers. All it takes to avoid this error is to take a second and think about what you’re trying to say.

“Your” is a possessive pronoun, as in “your car” or “your blog.” “You’re” is a contraction for “you are,” as in “you’re screwing up your writing by using your when you really mean you are.”

2. It’s vs. Its

This is another common mistake. It’s also easily avoided by thinking through what you’re trying to say.

“It’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” “Its” is a possessive pronoun, as in “this blog has lost its mojo.” Here’s an easy rule of thumb—repeat your sentence out loud using “it is” instead. If that sounds goofy, “its” is likely the correct choice.

3. There vs. Their

This one seems to trip up everyone occasionally, often as a pure typo. Make sure to watch for it when you proofread.

“There” is used many ways, including as a reference to a place (“let’s go there”) or as a pronoun (“there is no hope”). “Their” is a plural possessive pronoun, as in “their bags” or “their opinions.” Always do the “that’s ours!” test—are you talking about more than one person and something that they possess? If so, “their” will get you there.

4. Affect vs. Effect

To this day I have to pause and mentally sort this one out in order to get it right. As with any of the other common mistakes people make when writing, it’s taking that moment to get it right that makes the difference.

“Affect” is a verb, as in “Your ability to communicate clearly will affect your income immensely.” “Effect” is a noun, as in “The effect of a parent’s low income on a child’s future is well documented.” By thinking in terms of “the effect,” you can usually sort out which is which, because you can’t stick a “the” in front of a verb. While some people do use “effect” as a verb (“a strategy to effect a settlement”), they are usually lawyers, and you should therefore ignore them if you want to write like a human.

5. The Dangling Participle

The dangling participle may be the most egregious of the most common writing mistakes. Not only will this error damage the flow of your writing, it can also make it impossible for someone to understand what you’re trying to say.

Check out these two examples from Tom Sant’s book Persuasive Business Proposals:

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges.

Uhh… keep your decomposing brother away from me!

Featuring plug-in circuit boards, we can strongly endorse this server’s flexibility and growth potential.

Hmmm… robotic copy written by people embedded with circuit boards. Makes sense.

The problem with both of the above is that the participial phrase that begins the sentence is not intended to modify what follows next in the sentence. However, readers mentally expect it to work that way, so your opening phrase should always modify what immediately follows. If it doesn’t, you’ve left the participle dangling, as well as your readers.

P.S. You may find it amusing to know that I, like David Ogilvy, have never learned the formal rules of grammar. I learned to write by reading obsessively at an early age, but when it came time to learn the “rules,” I tuned out. If you show me an incorrect sentence, I can fix it, but if I need to know the technical reason why it was wrong in the first place, I go ask my wife.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and four ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

Follow me.

19 thoughts on “Five Grammar Errors that Make you Look Dumb

  1. Pingback: 21 Tips from Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” | WordDreams...

  2. Pingback: Grammarly–online or resident grammar checker | WordDreams...

  3. Pingback: The Illustrated Unwritten Rules of Writing #2: Proofreading » Cities of the Mind

  4. Pingback: Resistance is Human Behaviour « The Virtual Connect

  5. Pingback: I Can Fix my Mistakes. | Tuesday2's Blog

  6. A very basic list, but one that includes errors made by the experienced and inexperienced, the master and the learner. It’s always a good idea to proof for those five. Thanks!


  7. Thank you, thank you. I trip on the dangling participle – always with that stupid wordy foot sticking out to catch me. I’m going to direct the crit group to this article, and therefore your blog, because so many writers make so many of these specific errors. By the way, do you sell commas anywhere on this site?
    How did the tech book launch go? You pre-sold a bunch, that must have been rewarding! And how’s the rewrite going? I bet the bed pillow you bought 10 years ago is still brand new.


    • Launch went well. Presales covered printing costs–can you believe that?! Rewrite is turtling along. TGIS. I still love my book, just want to get it moved forward. If I ever find a publisher, you’ll have to hose me down with a valium spray.


    • Donchu love picky people in your critique group. I have a few of those. Shari (see comment below) is one of those. I have to put a bag over my head every time she critiques my work. Worse–she’s always right! (Shari–I have you to thank for my agent, you know that. You made me better)


      • I can’t take credit for your hard work.
        You will be surprised when you return to the crit group to see how much I’ve grown up. No longer nit picking about all those little things that will eventually sort themselves out. Now I focus on the big picture. Hopefully my crits are better and serve my writing friends respectfully. In other words, I am no longer a pompous artichoke and am now a decent cheerleader – with a few good ideas. No more bags for you or me.


  8. Pingback: The 15 Biggest Writing Blunders (And How To Avoid Them) « Word Dreams…

  9. Pingback: Five grammar errors and looking dumb « What is the content?

What do you think? Leave a comment and I'll reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.