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!