Ten Grammar Rules and Best Writing Practices That Every Writer Should Know

grammar rules

Some of the most overlooked grammar rules and best writing practices.

The more experience I gain as a writer, the more I’m convinced that writing is one of the most difficult skills to master. It’s not enough to tell a great story, share an original idea, or create an intriguing poem; writers are also obligated to pay diligence to the craft. While the content (or message) of our writing is paramount, the way we use language can be just as critical.

Bad grammar is a distraction. If you can write a riveting story, readers will probably overlook a few grammatical problems. However, each mistake or incorrect construction will momentarily yank readers out of the story. Sure, they can jump back in, but it makes for a negative or unpleasant reading experience.

Good craftsmanship involves more than simply knowing the grammar rules or adhering to a style guide. It includes making smart word choices, constructing sentences that flow smoothly, and writing in a way that is neither awkward nor confusing.


10 Vital Grammar Rules and Best Writing Practices

The best writing follows the rules of grammar (or breaks those rules only with good reason) and is clear, coherent, and consistent.

In my work as a writing coach and as an avid reader, I see a lot of the same mistakes. These mistakes aren’t typos or occasional oversights. They appear repeatedly, among multiple writers and pieces of writing, and they make it weak or dull.

Most writers don’t want their work to be weak or dull. We want our writing to be strong and vibrant. If we learn the grammar rules and adopt best practices in the craft, our writing can shine.

Here are ten of most frequently ignored (or unknown) grammar rules and writing practices:

  1. Commas: except for the period, the comma is the most common punctuation mark and the most misused. It’s a tricky one because the rules are scarce, leaving usage up to style guides and writers’ best judgement. In weak writing, there are too few or too many commas. Be consistent in how you use commas and strike the right balance.
  2. Avoid weak words: very, really, and the verbs to be, to have, and to do are often markers of weak, amateur writing. Sometimes, we need to use these words, but there is often a more specific or vivid word available.
  3. Verb and tense agreement: these errors are often the result of shoddy editing and proofreading. A sentence that was originally in perfect past tense is changed to simple past tense but one of the words in the sentence is overlooked and you end up with something like She went the store and had shopped for produce. Another example would be The cats has one bowl. 
  4. Stay away from passive voice: avoid passive constructions like The book was read by the girl. Passive voice is awkward, renders unnecessary verbiage, and sounds old-fashioned. Active voice is better: The girl read the book.
  5. Check your homophones: homophones are little devils because spell check won’t catch them and they often sneak past editor’s eyes. Too many youngsters aren’t taught proper homophone use (in other words, they don’t know spellings or definitions of their vocabulary). From common sets of homophones like they’re, their, and there to more advanced words like complement and compliment, it pays to learn proper usage and to proofread meticulously.
  6. Rare or uncommon punctuation marks: if you decide to use a punctuation mark like the ellipsis (three dots) or semicolon (comma with a period over it), then take the time to learn what it’s called and how to use it properly.
  7. Watch your pronouns: too many pronouns in a sentence cause confusion and makes it difficult for the reader to keep track of who is saying and doing what. Use the noun or name first in a paragraph, then use pronouns to refer back to whomever (or whatever) you’re talking about.
  8. Only proper nouns are capitalized: for some reason, a lot of people have taken it upon themselves to freely capitalize any words they think are important, a practice that is rampant in business writing. The Product is on Sale Now is not a grammatically correct sentence.
  9. Extraneous words (verbiage): verbiage is not text or writing; it is extraneous, unnecessary language. The best sentences and paragraphs contain only words that are absolutely necessary. They communicate as simply and straightforwardly as possible. Keep it simple and edit the excess!
  10. Consistency is key: the grammar rules don’t cover everything. As a writer, you will constantly be challenged to make judicious decisions about how to construct your sentences and paragraphs. Always be consistent. Keeping a style guide handy will be a tremendous help.

Of course, this list is just a taste of grammar rules and best writing practices that are often overlooked. What are some of the most common grammatical errors you’ve observed? Do you have any best writing practices to share? Leave a comment!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

37 Responses to “Ten Grammar Rules and Best Writing Practices That Every Writer Should Know”

  1. Nasir says:

    Thanks for the reminders Melissa.
    Have a nice day!

  2. R. E. Hunter says:

    #2 and #9 are my biggest problems, and probably a little of #7 as well.

    #5 is definitely the mistake I see most in other people’s writing. I most often see #3 in bulleted or numbered lists, or in overly complex sentences.

  3. Great list! Sometimes I labor over grammar and punctuation in a little sentence for far too long. Having these tips will help.

  4. L.A. Wood says:

    Very good advice, Melissa. As a new author, I’ve done lots and lots of proofreading and editing, over and over and over…and still found a couple of typos or errors! One suggestion might be for writers to edit page- by- page, or chapter- by- chapter. rather than waiting for the finished product. It might be good to do your proofing and editing as you go. just a thought. For me, a good English grammar and writing handbook is a must!

    Thanks for your advice again.

    Cordially, L.A. Wood

    • I actually think it’s impossible for a writer to catch every single typo and mistake, especially in a long piece, like a book manuscript. That’s why proofreaders and editors are so important!

  5. morchena says:

    your and you’re – do young people know the difference?

    • Sadly, many do not know the difference.

      • Willa says:

        It isn’t only young people. I am in my 60s, and my activities on Facebook have proven to me beyond a shadow of doubt that just as much grammar and spelling incompetence exists among my own peers as in my son’s and grandson’s age groups, regardless of level of education. It is truly pathetic. However, I must add that I also see at least as much competence among the youngsters as I do in my own age group, and nearly as much carelessness and incorrect grammar among professional writers of articles in newspapers and online journals as in a day’s worth of Facebook posts by my acquaintances. It is a paradox!

        • Hi Willa, It is a paradox! In my experience online and off, people from earlier generations have better grammar skills, but I’ve only drawn that conclusion from my interactions with a small number of people. My impression has been that schools have drifted away from grammar lessons. I do think it’s a combination of what’s being taught (or what isn’t being taught) and simple lack of interest or motivation on students’ part. In any case, it’s unfortunate.

        • JRMIR says:

          Yes about the what isn’t being taught part. I’ve learned more on google, finding sites such as these, than in the past four years of Highschool. I took two different English classes out of interest; each of them spent half the semester watching Forest Gump… AI… The Kiterunner… Castaway (at least 2 times a semester)… and many more. Of course we’d have our observational notes to take, but it was far from educational.

          This is in Canada, Ab. If that makes a difference. But yeah, thanks for putting up sites such as these; they really help where school didn’t.

        • I’m sorry to hear that. In fact, I find it rather disturbing that high school students are spending their time in English classes watching and rewatching movies. When I was in school, we watched maybe two movies in a school year, and this was after we read and studied the books. I can’t help but think that kids today are being robbed of a decent education.

  6. Tara says:

    Totally agree with commas being top! I try to teach students not to comma splice (using commas when it should be a full stop, semi colon or colon) and then realise that novels are littered with them. It’s no wonder they do it too!

    • I do think incorrect comma use is the most common mistake in writing but I’m more concerned with mistakes regarding spelling and word definitions. Commas are tricky and there is a lot of leeway in how we can use them. However, the splicing is one type of comma mistake that’s often obvious (especially when it should be a full stop). I’m glad there are teachers like you who are trying to impart good grammar to students :)

  7. Helen says:

    An excellent post and a great reminder for both the inexperienced and experienced writer.

  8. Hi, Melissa!

    Great list!

    I believe one of the most problematic grammatical errors being used today is this:

    Try AND.

    It’s totally unacceptable, no matter that TV journalists and everybody else in pop culture uses it.

    It’s try TO, stupid!

    Sorry, just had to unload that one.

    Best writing practices?

    Let me mention reading one’s work out loud in a quiet room. Check for cadence, tense, redundancy, unnecessary adjectives, that kind of thing.

    Another one would be to always sleep on your manuscript (not literally) and then come back at it the next day with refreshed eyes. You’ll catch those niggling bits you overlooked yesterday.

    Always check your work for how it looks visually as black-on-white-space. Effective writing is often about managing the balance between printed text and white space for dramatic effect. An example would be this sentence-paragraph:

    “FIRE!” he screamed.

    Know your audience. I am a man but I know how to write for women when it is called for. Effective use of these gender cues will endear you to your audience. Example: Sensory cues such as fragrances and color subtleties appeal to most women while most men like action words and urban vernacular like Kapow! and WTF!

    Never expect your friends or relatives to know what the hell you’re talking about when it comes to your writing. But I say let them laugh or just plain ignore me. My royalty checks are my real friends. Heh heh.

    As a prolific writer/publisher of over 100 short stories, I think I have a pretty good handle on knowing that writing is a marathon, not a race. How often do you see nubes on Amazon forums fretting that they haven’t gotten any reviews yet or that they publically wonder if they’re any good? They should have thought of that BEFORE typing one keystroke. Writing success is all about planning, longevity and staying power, not instant gratification.

    I will round out my best writing practices comments with this: NEVER give away your art. Value yourself and your craft and your audience will respond in kind. Walk away from underpaying freelance assignments. Resist the urge to slash your book price to jump-start sales. Why should J.K. Rowling get rich at your expense?

    • Wayne, I appreciate your feedback and your valuable insights. However, here at Writing Forward, we don’t call people names because they haven’t yet mastered constructs like “try to.” Everybody starts somewhere. Also, the phrase “try and” is colloquial and heavily used in some areas. If you were writing a dialogue for a character who came from one such area, it would be completely appropriate to bring that phrasing into the character’s dialect. That’s just my opinion, of course. It’s still important for the writer to be aware the proper rules.

      You might find this article from Grammar Girl interesting: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-comments.aspx

      “I got really frustrated while researching this topic because none of my books seemed willing to take a stand. They all said ‘try and’ is an accepted informal idiom that means ‘try to.’ They say to avoid ‘try and’ in formal writing, but not to get too worked up about it otherwise.”

      Grammar Girl goes on to say that she disapproves of this construct (and I’m inclined to agree with her).

  9. Jordan says:

    Thanks a lot for the tips. I’m an avid writer myself, and I find that I’m still guilty of a few of your points, particularly number’s 1 and 9. It really helps when I’m reminded of them, because it helps to keep it on my mind when I get back to writing.

  10. Hi again, Melissa!

    Cool your jets! My comment “It’s try TO, stupid!” is a satirical takeoff on the famous political phrase used in American politics during Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign against George Bush. It actually was based on a sign created by Clinton’s strategist, James Carville which read “The economy, stupid.” It hung in Clinton’s Little Rock campaign HQ and went viral in the media.

    At no time did I mean to denigrate any writer here or anywhere. This famous expression is known as a “snowclone,” a type of cliche’ and phrasal template (to paraphrase Wiki). Writing can be wickedly fun and deadly serious at the same time, as seen from Clinton’s successful election to the office of president.

    Just as I have your blog on my RSS feed, I have Grammar Girl’s and had read the post you highlighted. She is as frustrated with this as we both are. I love working in idiom when it fleshes out characters and places in time. My kin are from North Carolina and they speak idiomatically all the time, so I get it, Melissa. Thanks.

    All the above aside, let’s all agree that writing is as much science as art, subject to precise rules and a whole lot of imprecision as well. I think that the public school system in America has done a less than stellar job at teaching our children (our present and future writers) the basics of this craft we care so much about. As a professional writer, I try my darndest to color within the lines, but when my characters and plot take me places where historical pressures have shaped certain folks in certain places of this country, I let them speak their “mind.” My Carolina kin say “y’all” and “pie-anna” and yes, “try and.” I love them for that.

    And I love you too, Melissa :)

    • Wayne, you have contributed a lot of thoughtful comments here at Writing Forward, and I always appreciate your feedback and input. It’s sometimes difficult to discern someone’s tone in writing, so perhaps I am mistaken, but your tone is coming across as snide and sarcastic. The comment policy here is simple: be respectful. That’s it.

      Insinuating people who don’t know the rules of grammar are stupid (either in one’s own words or through a quote), telling me to cool my jets, and other such comments are simply not appropriate here. There are many forums with looser rules. This is just not one of them. I don’t want anyone to come here and feel insulted or intimidated. As you were once a young writer who knew little about the craft, I’m sure you can understand why I want to foster an atmosphere in which writers feel safe and comfortable, regardless of their level of skill or experience.

      Thanks for understanding.

  11. Leah says:

    An important list, Melissa. So often writers don’t pay enough attention to the little things, which is “forgivable” (to sound quite haughty) if they’re saying something really great, but it’s even better when it looks good! What disheartens me most is when credit is given to someone for editing, but yet the same errors pop up again and again with nothing being done. At least they’re trying, I suppose… :/

    This is my first time on your website, so I’m not sure if you’d appreciate the following: #5 has the weight of the world falling on one lone editor, and (to be extra nit-picky), #6 refers to the singular ellipsis in the plural. (In mentioning this, I have probably guaranteed a few typos on my part as well!)

    Personally, I find homophones will slip through if I’m tired (like now), as if my fingers work in an auditory manner rather than visually, and on a “near enough is good enough” principle to boot! I guess that’s the same principle as Word, which most recently told me that I should change “it’s facedown” to “its”. Its *what*? And that is why we need to teach children and not computers. I’ve often considered becoming an English teacher; the semi-colons need some serious help!

    • Hi Leah,

      Thanks for your great feedback. “Ellipses” should have been singular and is fixed now. Thanks for pointing that out.

      I’m not sure why #5 puts the weight of the world on one editor. Finding such errors is the editor’s job, after all, and I was merely pointing out that typos slip past editors sometimes, as can be seen in most published books. I don’t think it’s a big deal if there are few typos in a massive manuscript. I simply wanted to remind writers to check for homophone misspellings instead of relying too heavily on editors, and I do think a lot of writers are lazy in their own editing/proofreading process because they figure the editor will catch the mistakes (not a good strategy, in my opinion).

      Word has some funny ideas about grammar. I try to laugh it off, but it actually annoys me to no end. I’m an advocate for alternative word processing programs and recently started using Scrivener for my novel.

      Thanks again!
      Melissa

  12. Bill Metcalfe says:

    Hello Melissa.

    “Look! Is this a sacred calling or not? Are you communing with something vast and profound or aren’t you? Do you revere and respect your own humanity in relation to that of your fellow human beings or what? Then, for the love of all that is holy, learn to use a semi-colon.”
    –Lynn Coady, Canadian novelist

  13. Destination Infinity says:

    Informative tips. I have never used semicolons in my sentences and I think I should learn about its proper usage in a sentence. Can you do a post on the same? Thanks for the inspiration, anyway.

  14. Eman Kamal says:

    well Melissa it’s really a nice topic and it helped me in writing. I think it’s not important the words in the story or the article, but the most important thing is the grammatical rules as it showes others that you know how to write

    • As much as I advocate for grammar, I’m going to have to disagree. I definitely don’t think that grammar is the most important thing in writing. I would say the words and the story itself should be given higher priority. That doesn’t mean I think writers should forgo grammar in favor of good storytelling and word choice; I’m just saying that I can forgive a few grammar mistakes more easily than I can tolerate a boring or uninteresting story.

    • Karolin says:

      I disagree with you Eman. I think the theme and the words more important

  15. Ken Hughes says:

    Grammar’s not top priority, but still vital, agreed. As long as the meaning’s clear (though it sometimes isn’t!), bad grammar is just a distraction from the good stuff. And like most serious distractions, it doesn’t take much to hurt a story–but not as badly as having a weak story under it in the first place.

    And I think Eman had the best point: each error just announces that you don’t know your work.

    • I think most errors do tell the reader that you don’t know something about your craft, although there are exceptions. For example, we all make typos, which are mistakes in which we do know the correct construct but our typing or proofreading missed it. Ugh, typos suck.

  16. Terri Shaver says:

    Also, use the pronoun “who” with people, the pronouns “which” or “that” with objects.

    Just as you would not say, “The ladder who broke”, you would not say “The person that arrived”.

  17. Elvina says:

    Where i could look up more extensive rules for using quotation marks in dialogue? i get confused when in one sentence you have a spoken words and thoughts for instance.