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7 Common Grammar Faux Pas

7 Common Grammar Faux Pas

By Danielle Leber, Managing Editor

Let鈥檚 get this out of the way immediately: yes, I am one of those grammar people.

Every time I see a misplaced apostrophe on a restaurant menu (appetizer鈥檚, entr茅e鈥檚, etc.), I can鈥檛 help but joke (much to my companions鈥 delight, I鈥檓 sure), 鈥淲ho is appetizer and what鈥檚 he got?鈥

An unnecessary comma in a novel forces me to pause my internal monologue dramatically, as must have been intended by the author (because why else the comma?).

Point being, I love grammar.

Most people who read your board minutes, proposals, or newsletters likely aren鈥檛 doing so as attentively as I might. But that doesn鈥檛 mean they won鈥檛 notice grammatical errors and make a judgment鈥攚hether consciously or subconsciously鈥攁bout you and your content as a result.

So how do you prevent your minor mistakes from turning into major issues and embarrassing errors in the minds of your readers?

Be Clearer with Commas (and Semicolons)

I recall one of my elementary school teachers telling me that comma usage was as easy as placing this little piece of punctuation anywhere in a sentence where you naturally would pause. And I recall just as distinctly the exact moment I realized how wrong she was.

Although comma usage isn鈥檛 quite that simple, there are a few straightforward rules to ensure your commas always are correct.

1) Always use a comma with an introductory element or statement.

That means any time you say something like 鈥淚n 2019鈥,鈥 鈥淚n fact鈥,鈥 or 鈥淲hen the association was founded鈥,鈥 a comma should follow it. Take the following example:

When we started the association in 1990, Internet privacy wasn鈥檛 a primary concern.

 

You just as easily could say, 鈥淚nternet privacy wasn鈥檛 a primary concern when we started the association in 1990.鈥 When that is the case, you need a comma. (Or should I say you need a comma when that is the case?)

2) Don鈥檛 separate dependent clauses with a comma.

If you have two or more independent clauses in a sentence, those phrases should be separated by a comma. However, you do not need a comma if the phrases are dependent. Take a look at the following example of two dependent phrases spliced with a comma:

Mary didn鈥檛 want to study medicine because she was afraid of needles, and disliked science.

 

The idea that Mary disliked science is not a full thought, so it cannot be separated by a comma.

Still not sure how to tell the difference between the two? An easy way to remember this rule is right there in the names: although both may include a subject and verb, an independent clause can stand alone and a dependent clause cannot.

3) Don鈥檛 fear the semicolon.

Many people find the semicolon tricky, but it actually is one of the easiest forms of punctuation to use.

The first and easiest rule involves lists. Essentially, if you have lists within lists, you need a semicolon. Take the following example:

Andrew bought a suede vest; a red, white, and blue bandanna; and a vintage guitar for his Willy Nelson costume.

 

Once you get the hang of identifying independent clauses, the second rule for semicolons is just as simple. If you have two independent clauses that are closely related in a single sentence, and there is not a coordinating conjunction between them, you can use a semicolon to separate them. Let鈥檚 go back to our friend Mary in medical school for an example of this:

Mary didn鈥檛 get into her first-choice medical school; her last-choice also denied her application.

 

Agreement and Apostrophes Are Important

Whether they involve issues of subject/verb agreement or misplaced modifiers, agreement issues are among the most common鈥攁nd easily resolved鈥攇rammar mistakes.

4) Don鈥檛 misplace your modifier.

A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is incorrectly separated from the word it is describing. Take the following example:

Julie ate a cold dish of ice cream for lunch.

 

Sure, the chances are good that the dish was cold because it contained ice cream鈥攂ut chances are even better that in this sentence, the writer actually wanted to describe the ice cream as being cold. That鈥檚 the difference a properly placed modifier makes.

5) And don鈥檛 let it dangle.

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that seems to modify something that doesn鈥檛 seem to be in the sentence at all. Let鈥檚 check back with Julie after she鈥檚 eaten her ice cream for an example of this:

After finally finishing the ice cream, the day felt much more pleasant.

 

Although most of us can intuit what is meant, if you read this sentence literally, it implies that the day ate the ice cream, not Julie.

6) Subjects and verbs should play nicely together.

The subject and verb in a sentence always should agree in terms of number. More simply put, if the subject is singular, the verb should be too. Take the following sentence:

The most important part of life are the memories you make.

 

This is a tricky one because 鈥渕emories鈥 is plural鈥攂ut it鈥檚 important to remember that the verb is actually modifying 鈥渢he most important part,鈥 meaning it should be singular: 鈥淭he most important part of life is the memories you make.鈥

7) Always, always check your apostrophes.

If you read the introduction to this post and thought, 鈥淲hat鈥檚 the problem with appetizer鈥檚?鈥 then this one is for you.

Although they are among the most unassuming parts of punctuation, apostrophes also are one of the most important鈥攅specially when we鈥檙e talking about 鈥渋t.鈥

It seems natural that 鈥渋t鈥檚鈥 would be possessive; after all, most possessive forms contain an apostrophe somewhere. But in this case, it鈥檚 a contraction clear and simple. If you鈥檙e stuck, don鈥檛 think of the other possessive forms you know, but instead about 鈥渉ers.鈥 Although 鈥渉er鈥 stands alone, we鈥檇 never dream of saying the bracelet was her鈥檚鈥攔ight? It鈥檚 the same with 鈥渋ts.鈥

Consistency Is Key

Grammar is important; this much we know. But regardless of whether you鈥檙e writing an informal email or press release to be sent to hundreds of stakeholders, the most important thing is consistency.

Consistent, clear communications not only get your message across more effectively, but they also show the reader how carefully you鈥檝e considered what you鈥檙e saying鈥攕ending another, even more impactful, message about your organization鈥檚 competency and professionalism.

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