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 cause the work to be 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 frequently ignored (or unknown) grammar rules and writing practices:
- Commas: the comma is one of the most common punctuation marks 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.
- Verb tense: The topic of tense warrants an article of its own (or maybe an entire book). There are multiple tenses beyond past, present, and future, and they are worth knowing. Be especially careful of mixing up simple past tense (I danced all night) and past perfect tense (I had danced all night).
- Adjectives vs. adverbs: People don’t run quick; they run quickly. The word quick is an adjective; quickly is an adverb. Make sure you’re using adverbs to modify verbs and adjectives to modify nouns.
- Check your homophones: homophones are little devils because spell check won’t catch them and they often sneak past editors’ 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.
- 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.
- Subject-verb agreement: The subject of a sentence needs to match the verb. Due to verb conjugation, this is especially tricky for people who speak English as a second language and for tots who are learning to speak. Here’s an example of a common mistake: She have two cats. The verb have does not go with the subject she. It should be She has two cats.
- 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 correctly written sentence.
- Verb tense consistency and meticulous editing: 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 to the store and had shopped for produce.
- Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve: I don’t know why, but a lot of people seem to think the “ve” in these words means “of.” But it’s short for “have.” These words are contractions for “should have,” “could have,” and “would have,” respectively — NOT “should of,” “could of,” or “would of.”
- Consistency is key: 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!
Thanks for the reminders Melissa.
Have a nice day!
Thanks, Nasir. You have a nice day too 🙂
Great list! Sometimes I labor over grammar and punctuation in a little sentence for far too long. Having these tips will help.
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!
How very true. I go over my manuscripts many times but always find when I sent it to be edited that I have missed several things. I think it pays to have a beta reader go through your work before having it edited and submitting to an agent/publishing company.
I have found beta readers incredibly helpful for feedback on substance and editors ideal for language. If you can work with both, that’s the best of both worlds.
your and you’re – do young people know the difference?
Sadly, many do not know the difference.
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.
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.
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.
An excellent post and a great reminder for both the inexperienced and experienced writer.
I believe one of the most problematic grammatical errors being used today is this:
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).
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.
“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
Ha! Love that quote. I’ve never heard it before.
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.
Here you go: How to use a semicolon.
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.
I disagree with you Eman. I think the theme and the words more important
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.
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”.
That’s a good reminder. Thanks, Terri.
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.
I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style for fiction writers. As for dialogue and thoughts, I personally try to avoid including too many thoughts in narrative. I put dialogue in quotation marks and use italics for thoughts, which differentiates them quite effectively.
Thank you. I am a fifty-seven year old student being taught. I covet the knowledge.
Thanks, Rick. Writing and learning are for people of all ages.
In my opinion,writing might be separated to two parts that one of these required really more information and grammar rules others must be just to communicate some people.What is this?So,writing might be art or just we use for communicating.If we understand this difference and we realize why we want to use writing skills,we say that writing is too hard or not.
I agree. Some writing is pure communication, other writing is pure art, and most writing is somewhere in between, a craft.
Thank you for this detailed grammar rules. I often find myself breaking some of these rules. But I’m learning each day and consciously making efforts to improve.
You’re welcome! Keep up the good work.
Great job! thank you so much Melissa.
My dear, I would like to be good at writing, but I am not sure where should I start and be a perfect writer, can you advise me please, many thanks.
I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a “perfect writer.” But starting is simple: you write. You write every day. You read and you study the craft. Reading articles like this is a good start. It takes time, patience, and practice. Give yourself time and space to learn. Good luck!
Dear Ms. Donovan,
I was smart enough to learn the most boring and unnecessary lessons at teacher college. In spite of this, I believe I became a decent teacher. Now that I am retired, I am highly motivated to earn a bit of income to be able to pay my bills. Could you please tell me what fundamentals of grammar I must master first.
Thanks for your question. I’m not sure what kind of job you want that requires learning grammar, although my hope would be that if you were a credentialed teacher, you already have sufficient grammar skills. I would recommend starting with a simple primer, such as The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style.
I join the dozens of people who have already thanked you. I find that these rules are written in an easy to understand form. I may sometimes make some of these mistakes due to carelessness, but I try to always correct what I have written.
Thank you for your kind words, Allison. I appreciate it.
I came up with an easy example to explain ‘homophones’:
‘They’re going down their road to get there’.
I find it useful to create sentences to explain grammar rules.
Yep, that’s a good one!