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Warning: Common Grammar Mistakes You Should Never Make

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Grammatical rules provide boundaries within which greater written communication is possible.

If you lack a clear understanding of grammar rules, it can keep your ideas shackled to a fear of writing or even speaking publicly. This fear can put quite a damper on your freelancing career, too, since through writing you can grow your freelance business.

This is especially important for you as a freelancer.

Your website, emails, even your comments on forums and blogs are ways through which clients and prospects judge your business. If you lack grammatical grace, outsiders may begin to see you as less than legitimate.

Now, don't panic. You do not have to retake your high school English class. Knowing what common grammar mistakes to avoid will grow your writing skills leaps and bounds. In addition, you will have more confidence in both written and oral expression. And you'll have less fear of the perceived "persnickety" police that gleefully ticket offenses.

1. Apostrophes

I like to group apostrophe mistakes into two categories: (a) possessives and (b) contractions. We'll discuss both below:

To show possession

When you possess something, it means you own it. A noun (a word that is a person, place, thing, or idea) that is possessive is distinguished from a plural noun by use of an apostrophe.

  • The dogs like to play with bones. (This sentence is talking about two or more dogs, not showing that the dogs actually own the bones).
  • The dog's bone became his favorite chew toy. (In this sentence, the dog actually possesses the bone, so an apostrophe mark is needed before the "s").
  • The dogs' bones are their favorite toys. (Here, there are more than one dog owning a bone. To show this, add an "s" to "dog" to make the noun plural as in the first example sentence. Then add an apostrophe after the "s" to also show possession).

To make a contraction

Spellcheck is awesome! But it does not tell you if you have used the wrong spelling of a word for the context of your sentence.

Common words that people get confused involve contractions and their homophone pronouns (i.e. their, there, and they're; its and it's; your and you're). Basically, if you include an apostrophe, you are using that apostrophe to join two separate words together to create a new word. For instance, the word "they're" is actually "they" and "are" combined. The non-apostrophe spellings are actually possessive pronouns used to take the place of a noun that possesses something.

Try this test if you ever get confused, and even I have to do this constantly. To see if you need a contraction, try breaking the word into the non-contraction form. If it makes sense, then you need the apostrophe form. If it doesn't make sense, use the non-apostrophe spelling.

  • It's a shame to refuse a dog its bone. (Test: It is a shame to refuse a dog it is bone. The first "it is" makes sense, so add an apostrophe to make a contraction. The second one does not make sense; therefore, no apostrophe needed - this "its" is only a pronoun for a dog possessing the bone.)
  • If you're going to leave, place your keys under the doormat. (Test: If you are going to leave, place you are keys under the doormat. The first "you're" is clearly a contraction needing an apostrophe; the second "your" is clearly a possessive pronoun with no need of an apostrophe.)

The their, there, and they're homophones need a bit more explanation. Both their and there are pronouns. However, their is a possessive pronoun, while there is a pronoun used either as a placeholder or to replace a location noun.

Every sentence needs a subject and verb; "there are" and "there is" are common "placeholders" used as subject/verb combinations. Basically, if you can replace "there" with "here", then you are using this pronoun correctly.

  • They're going to London for vacation this year using their flyer mileages. (Test: They are going to London...they are flyer mileages. The first is a contraction that needs the apostrophe; the second is a pronoun to show possession of flyer mileages.)
  • There are many wonderful sites to see there. (Test: Here see here. The first "there" is a placeholder pronoun. The second "there" in this sentence is a pronoun used to replace a location noun, in this instance, London.)

2. Violation of Terms

Word term violations, including the apostrophe ones above, seem to be one of the most common errors made by freelancers, bloggers, website owners, or really anyone without a formal grammar background. Some terms are easy to keep straight with tests, like those above, but for others, you simply have to pull out your memorization tricks.

To, Too, Two

  • To: This is a preposition as well as an infinitive. Basically, use this when the others fail to make sense.
  • Too: Use "as well" or "also" in its place. If it sounds correct, you are correct.
  • Two: This is a value of the number 2.

Affect, Effect

The confusing aspect of "affect" and "effect" is that both can be used as verbs or nouns, contrary to popular believe. If you memorize the definitions, however, you can keep them straight.

  • Affect: Used as a verb (most common usage), affect has several meanings. "To pretend or assume" is one less common definition; "to act on" or "to move" is the more well-known definition. He perfectly affected (assumed) the air of a nobleman whenever he dressed the part. His attitude affected (moved) those around him so much that they treated him like royalty. Used as a noun, affect often means a strong emotion not associated with thoughts or actions, and it can often refer to an emotion that has dire consequences, as in a psychological disorder. His affect is due to his bi-polar condition.
  • Effect: Used as a noun (most common usage), effect can mean "result", "power to produce results", or "intention". The earthquake's effect (result) on the city was devastating. The city's effect (intention) was to clean up as quickly as possible. Used as a verb, effect can mean "to accomplish" or "to bring about". The earthquake effected a sense of comradery and kindness between and among the citizens.

Then, Than

  • Then: Used in the if...then combinations. If someone asks you directions, then you should oblige him or her. Or "then" is often used to introduce a clause in combination with "and". The boy first gave me his toy soldiers, and then he decided to give me some of his candy.
  • Than: This is used in the rather...than combinations. I would rather you pick up your sister now than later. Rather than leave now, I'll leave when I finish this project.

3. Inconsistency with Singular and Plural Words

One problem with the English language (and there are many) is that our pronouns are quite confusing. For one, there is no plural form for 3rd-person pronouns, such as "him" and "her". It would make writing so much easier to be able to say "hims" or "hers", "hes" or "shes".

  • Your client will appreciate his or her articles much more if your grammar is flawless. (While very wordy, "his or her" is politically correct, as well as singularly correct.)
  • Your clients will appreciate their articles much more if your grammar is flawless. (Pluralize the noun if you want to pluralize the pronoun.)
  • Your client will appreciate their articles much more if your grammar is flawless. (This is incorrect. The noun "client" is singular but the pronoun "their" is plural.)

4. Run-ons and Comma Splices

You do not really need to know these terms to know how to combine two complete sentences correctly.

  • The boy ran to the game. He arrived just in time for tip-off. (These are two complete sentences; both have subjects and verbs.)
  • The boy ran to the game, and he arrived just in time for tip-off. (You can combine sentences using both a comma and a coordinating conjunction - and, or, for, nor, yet, so, but.)
  • The boy ran to the game; he arrived just in time for tip-off. (You can also combine sentences using only a semi-colon.)
  • The boy ran to the game and he arrived just in time for tip-off. (This is a run-on because there is no comma.)
  • The boy ran to the game, he arrived just in time for tip-off. (This is a comma splice because there is no conjunction.)

This brings me to another point, though. Do not confuse a dependent clause with an independent clause (a complete sentence). You can tell if a group of words is a dependent clause if it starts with a subordinating conjunction (i.e. because, if, after, while, until, so that). No comma is needed to join a dependent clause with a complete sentence, unless the clause comes at the beginning of the sentence.

  • Because I have a sensitive stomach, I avoid roller coasters at all costs. (Since the clause comes first, a comma is needed to separate it from the complete sentence.)
  • I avoid roller coasters at all costs because I have a sensitive stomach. (No comma is needed since the dependent clause comes after the complete sentence.)

I am quite weird. I've loved grammar and mechanics of the English language since I was old enough to start putting sentences together. You would think that I might be a persnickety police person, but I have come to understand over time that most English speakers do not just "get" the rules like I do. This is why a few grammar mistakes here and there is not going to ruin your reputation as a freelancer. If you know the basics and avoid the most common grammar mistakes that many people make, you will look near-flawless to the majority of the population.

Therefore, study the common errors above. If you make any other mistakes that your readers point out often, then learn how to correct these errors as well. In no time, you should be able to communicate effectively both in speaking and especially writing. As a result, you will increase your plausibility as a legitimate freelancer in your field, much more easily drawing clients to you rather than making them cringe every time you send an email.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Harvepino.