Grammar Tips for the Average Joe (or Jo-Ann)

Okay, so as an editor, I admittedly deal with grammar more than the average Joe (or Jo-Ann).

In fact, when my Hillary (now 14) was in first grade, I rode on a school bus with her class as a field trip chaperone. (Yes, I rode on a bus with 75 first graders–without a sedative, which is pretty much the equivalent of childbirth without an epidural.  I did that, too.)  Anyway, enroute I overheard the following conversation between Hillary and a classmate:

Little Boy:”Hey, Hillary, what does your mom do for a job?”

Hillary: “She corrects people’s spelling.”

It was humbling, to say the least.

Most people’s livelihood doesn’t depend on knowing how to spell properly or knowing how to conjugate verbs. HOWEVER, and I say this in all caps because it’s IMPORTANT, the degree to which you DO pay attention to spelling and grammar can make a big difference in how well you get on in the world.

That’s because bad grammar can make you look, well, bad. 

I’ve been doing some playing around with different topics on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter, just to get a feel for what kinds of things people seem to respond to and be interested in.  Guess which of my Facebook posts of late has gotten the most response?  The one about grammar!  (Although, the one about getting moles out of my yard seems to be running a close second.) It seems folks care more about grammar (and moles) than one might think. People do notice how well you do (or don’t) express yourself.

Here’s a fact: if you want people to take you seriously, you need to at least half-way sound like you know what you’re talking about. And if you can’t get at least the basics of either spoken or written English right, how credible of a candidate are they going to consider you for a job, position, speaking engagement, etc.? It may not be a fair judgment of your actual abilities. But I’m telling you, it’s REALITY.

I came across an article that speaks to this–so far as it relates to writing–in a succinct and user-friendly way. So, rather than re-invent the wheel, I’ll just re-post it for you here.  Hope you enjoy … and if it’s helpful, all the better!

——

(Note: this next part is an excerpt from an article on CopyBlogger.com, by Brian Clark.)

What are some 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 take you seriously if you make dumb mistakes when you write, and buying from you will be out of the question.

Here are five mistakes to avoid …

1. Your vs. You’re

This one drives me insane, and it’s become extremely common. 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 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.

Thanks, Brian, well said!  ~A.

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