In every language, there’s a difference between the spoken word and the written word. In practice, written language is more formal; you need to follow the rules. That’s not exactly true. You should speak or write according to the audience and subject material, not the medium you use. When you’re with your friends, you can clip your sentences as long as you convey the message. If you’re in a formal situation, you need to construct formal sentences. You need to know what’s correct so you can use it when you need to.
We’ve rounded together four of the biggest mistakes. It’s not a complete list. And, your teacher may even shiver when you use contractions (as we do here). They’re not acceptable in formal language. We use them because this isn’t a formal medium; we want you to be comfortable here.
You know what these are, right? They’re words that sound the same but have different meanings. Mostly, these words have different spellings or punctuation but not always (think of bark and bark). There are a lot of these that you use all the time, so you need to learn the proper use of each.
It’s v Its – This is one of the hardest to remember because it breaks the rules. It’s is the contraction meaning it is. Its is the possessive, so it has something.
You’re v Your – You’re means you are doing something. Your is something you have: “It’s your book.”
Affect v Effect – This is tricky, but affect is mostly a verb. Something affects you. Effect is more of a noun; it’s the effect you have on people.
Peek v Peak v Pique – Peek is when you look at something. A peak is the top of a mountain. And pique is a verb that loosely translates to provoke. You may not use these often, but they’ll drive your teachers crazy when you do.
They’re v Their v There – You use these so often in writing that you’ve got to start getting them right. They’re is the contraction of they are. Their is something they have; it’s their house. And there is what’s happening over… there.
Of course, there are more, and you need to learn all of them. But, start with these.
If you say something is bigger, you have to explain what it’s bigger than. When you speak informally, this is often implied. You’ll say, “My house is bigger.” And, if you’re speaking with your friend while standing in front of a small house, you’ll get away with it. But, it’s grammatically incorrect to write, “My house is bigger.” You need to finish that thought. It’s, “My house is bigger than his house.” (Or if you’re writing fiction, you can get away with a mix of formal and informal like this one. “My house is bigger,” he said, nodding his head towards the grandiose mansion rising in front of them.)
You’ve probably had passive voice explained to you over and over. It’s hard to wrap your head around it. It’s what makes your writing complicated and clunky. The best way to understand it is to look at the parts of a sentence. Verbs and nouns are easy; we’re concerned with subjects and objects here. The subject is the person, place or thing that’s doing something. The object is the noun that’s being manipulated in some way. Normally, the object falls at the end of the sentence. When you move it to the beginning, you have to work hard to explain what’s happening. (You know you’re doing it when you have a lot of verbs and directional clues.)
An example of passive voice is: The bone was chewed by the dog. It’s not a long sentence, but it’s all miserable. It sounds almost like a non-native speaker assembled it. This one is also easy to change to: The dog chewed the bone. Always change it to the active voice if you can; it just reads better.
Dangling modifiers often happen . And, sometimes they sound perfectly normal. But, they’re the mistake the occurs when you accidentally describe one thing in a sentence when you’re trying to describe another. For example: Totally hairy, Mary decided to brush her dog. You’re essentially saying that Mary is the totally hairy one.
Take a look at the structure of that. Description, subject + verb + object to be described. (Incidentally, “object to be described” is passive voice.) Instead, you’ve got to put the description – or modifier – closer to the thing it describes.
If you feel overwhelmed by this, you’re in good company. These grammar mistakes are wildly common. So what can you do about it? If you’re writing a paper, you can always run your text through a program that detects grammar errors. Microsoft Word doesn’t have these features; it will only check the basics at this point. Try grammarly.com – a lot of writers use it. But, use this app to learn the mistakes you make most often. Then figure out how to fix your mistakes. Want a hand keeping it all in order? We can help. Just give us a call.