by Gary Smailes
As an editor, I’ve edited hundreds of books. One thing that you quickly notice is that there are certain mistakes that you see repeated time and again. This article contains the five most common grammar and punctuation mistakes I come across on a daily basis. My hope is that by sharing some of these with you, you’ll be in a better position to avoid stepping on these literary mines.
Double Quotation Marks vs. Single Quotation Marks
This one is particularly important to me, because as an editor, it’s a mistake that I see very frequently, and it is one that is very time consuming to fix, which is ironic considering how easy it is to avoid.
- In American English, the only time that it is acceptable to use single quotation marks in your writing is if you have a quote within a quote (and even then, the author still doesn’t recommend using them).
- In British English, and seemingly most other countries around the world, the rules on single quotation marks vary far more widely. They are frequently used for dialogue and quotes within quotes.
If you are an international author trying to market your work to an American audience, please keep this in mind, as you will be saving your editor from a massive headache (and yourself from having to pay for more extensive proofreading) in the long run.
Oxford Comma – To Use It or Not to Use It?
This one isn’t really a rule, per se, so much as it is a discussion point. It’s the “Who shot first, Han vs. Greedo?” of the English world, and depending on who you ask, you’re going to get different answers.
The Oxford comma is the comma that goes after the second item on a list (lions, tigers, bears). Some editors say that you must use it, while others don’t think it’s necessary at all, and more than likely, this great grammar debate will never be solved. While the author personally thinks that writers should use it, ultimately, that choice rests with the author.
They’re, Their, and There
This one is the scorn of high school English teachers everywhere, mainly because they know full well that despite their best efforts to correct it, most people are going to continue making this error until such a time that only the trees, roaches, and Twinkies are left standing. Let’s see if we can break this down simply, because once you see it mapped out visually, this is actually a very simple concept to grasp.
- “They’re” is a contraction meaning “they are.” Use this one when you want to refer to a group of people, not a place or a thing.
- “Their” is used to refer to the ownership of something (i.e. an object) and is only used to describe a single person, not a large group.
- “There” is used to refer to the location of something. It’s never used to describe people or possessions, just the position of an object.
So all you have to remember is one of them is for groups, one of them is a single person, and one of them is for places.
Difference between A and An
Despite how commonly this particular typo occurs, this is probably the simplest rule that we’ll cover. Once someone points out how to use these two articles correctly to you, it’s unlikely that you’ll repeatedly make the error again.
- Use “a” anytime the word after it in a sentence begins with a consonant (that’s any letter that’s not a vowel.) For example, you wouldn’t say “an dog,” you would say “a dog.”
- Inversely, you’ll want to use “an” any time it is before a word in a sentence that begins with a vowel. You’ll never eat “a apple,” but you can surely eat “an apple.”
Just remember that one of these goes with vowels and the other one goes with consonants and you’ll never make that mistake again. Also, an easy way to figure this one out is to immediately “look” at your sentence after you write it. It something seems “off” to you about it, you have probably used the wrong modifier.
Affect vs. Effect
This one is by far the most confusing and though we would never officially cop to it, a lot of literary professionals (writers and editors) will still make this mistake on a semi-regular basis.
“Affect” is used when trying to describe (as it’s a verb) an emotion or an influence on something’s physical state – how somebody is feeling about something. It is always associated with a mood or a physical change in the properties of something.
“Effect,” on the other hand, is a noun, and is used to indicate the end result of an event. It has nothing to do with emotions or feelings and more to do with the concrete facts you can observe about someone or something.
Basically, you can’t see someone’s “affect,” but you can see the “effect” of something they have done afterwards. Affect is the emotion that causes something to happen, while the effect is the aftermath of the event.
There are a lot of other errors that we could cover here, but these five are some of the most common that we give clients feedback about. My sincere hope is that by bringing some of these issues to the forefront, writers will be more aware of what kinds of mistakes we (as editors) are looking for and how to avoid them.
Guest post contributed by Gary Smailes. Gary has a wide experience of the publishing industry and, over the years, has worked as a freelance writer, historian and researcher. He has more than twenty books in print by is represented by agent Andrew Lownie. He’s also the founder of BubbleCow.
Affect as a noun means “emotion.” “He had a flat affect.” As a verb, it means influence. “Inflation affects my income.” Effect is usually a noun, but if used as a verb means “bring about.” You’re also wrong about “their” not referring to a group; it is plural.
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I was taught, a million billion years ago, that I should use an with soft H too. It would be: an historical event, or an hour. Is this changing too?
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These are so true. I see them all the time in my writing and in my friends’ writing. For Affect and Effect one of my friends taught me the RAVEN rule:
It really does help you remember.
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Any chance you’ll cover “who” vs. “whom” in the future? That was always the bane of my existence, until I used the “her vs. she” rule. It was easier that applying the rather dry and complicated actual grammar rule. 🙂 Jamy
One thing that drives me crazy as a reader is the repeated beginning of sentences with a subordinate clause. (“After reading the blog, she wrote a comment.”) I think as writers it is easy to fall into bad habits. A good editor will root out such problems — worth his or her weight in gold!
Funny, I like to read sentences that use subordinate clauses, not repeatedly, but ….
Great tips for new writers. I’d just like to add one thing: the “a” vs. “an” rule can be a bit trickier than just looking for vowels and consonants. It’s vowel sounds and consonant sounds rather than the actual letters that are important. For example: you would say “a universal idea” rather than “an universal idea” because the letter “u” is actually making a consonant “y” sound. In contrast with this, you would use “an” if you were describing “an understanding” because the “u” is making a vowel “u” sound.
Thanks for great post
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That’s a really good point, Eric.
Love this, and please note – every Friday, my blog features an episode of “Friday Follies,” in which all of these language bloopers are addressed. I find actual gaffes in the media, and believe me, there is no shortage of them! Here’s my latest episode: https://crossedeyesanddottedtees.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/friday-follies-19-four-mistakes-that-make-me-go-arghhh/.
Also please note that “effect” can indeed sometimes be used as a verb. See here: https://crossedeyesanddottedtees.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/friday-follies-belated-15-some-mistakes-that-make-me-go-arghhh/ as well as here: https://crossedeyesanddottedtees.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/friday-follies-17-three-mistakes-that-make-me-go-arghhh/.
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Good rules to remember.
What about the bizarre use of ‘an’ before words beginning with an ‘H’? An historical review suggests that it is an old world usage. An heir to a grammar lexicon might argue against using such a construction. Perhaps it stems from cases in which ‘H’ is not pronounced, examples being ‘hour’, ‘honor’, or ‘heir’ as noted above? Would you say these fall under the line of thinking that the exception that proves the rule?
I would only add that “an” should also be used for any word that begins with a vowel sound, but not necessarily a vowel such as “hour” and when you’re speaking of particular letters of the alphabet that do the same: F, H, L, etc.
Affect vs. effect used to get me quite a bit, but I’m far better at it than lay vs. lie. I “cheat” on that and have a bookmark saved for reference 🙂
Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
I was told the Oxford comma was used in formal writing by my book editor and she expected me to use it. Back in high school, my English teacher taught that the word ‘and’ made the comma unnecessary. Honestly, I don’t see the need for the comma when used with ‘and’. It seems redundant.
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How about the commonly confused “than” and “then”? And misplaced or dangling modifiers?
My favorite argument for the Oxford comma: Jim rushed into the room to find his daughter, his wife, and the murderer.
As is, gripping thriller. Remove the Oxford comma, we have a very different (and far more derranged) story.
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That would be an intriguing story, Jon!
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Wow this is great information. I’ve seen the A vs. An usage issue many times it books and articles and it’s so annoying. But I never knew the rules for their use. I just went by what sounded correct to me. Thank you for sharing these tips.
Oh grammar, how I LOVE you! 🙂
Thank you for the like on my post! You have a great blog here and I look forward to following. (Although I make many typos I’m happy to say I knew all of those grammar rules. Nailed it!)
This sentence confused me “While the author personally thinks that writers should use it, ultimately, that choice rests with the author.”
A and An in the American language has a smell test. If it’s hard to say, or harder to read, use A. For example, “A unique point…”
Reblogged this on Kim's Author Support Blog.