5 Tips to Deal with Common Grammar Mistakes

At some point, we’ve all written “your” when we meant “you’re” or “excepted” something we planned to “accept.” On social media or in a text message, these kinds of grammar mistakes usually aren’t a big deal (unless you’re being a jerk…then prepare to get trolled).

But when they show up in your resume, term paper, or professional correspondence? Yikes. At best, they’re embarrassing; at worst, they can actually cost you important opportunities.

The fact that whoever is reading your writing has probably “effected” something they wanted to “affect” doesn’t matter. They’ll look at that misplaced comma or your “lead” instead of “led” and judge you (and your work) to be sloppy.

So, how does one avoid “thenning” when one intends to “than”? Well, I’ve got 5 tips to help ensure your writing sounds as polished as you are.

1. Read “its” and “it’s” as “it is.”

“Its” is the possessive form of “it,” while “it’s” is the contraction for “it is.” People get these two confused all the time, even when they know the difference. If you want to ensure you’ve got the right “its/it’s,” replace both with “it is” to check you’re using the right one.

  • “It’s [it is] going to rain today.” – Yep, you’re good.
  • “The dog wagged it’s [it is] tail.” – Nope, not good. Swap out that “it’s” for “its.”
2. Read “your” and “you’re” as “you are.”

“Your” is the second person possessive for “you,” and “you’re” is the contraction for “you are.” Like “its” and “it’s,” people confuse these two quite a bit, and you can also apply the same “replace while reading” tactic.

  • “You’re [you are] standing on my foot.” – Perfect, carry on.
  • “I’m standing on you’re [you are] foot.” – Not perfect. Change that “you’re” to “your.”
3. Read “their,” “there,” and “they’re” as “they are.”

This particular grammar conundrum is a little trickier than “its/it’s” and “your/you’re” because we’ve got three words that sound the same. “Their” is the third person possessive pronoun, and “there” is an adverb that indicates a place. (It can also function as a pronoun to introduce a clause or sentence for added mystique.) Meanwhile, “they’re” is the contraction for “they are.”

The “replace while reading” tip can save you from using “their” and “there” when you mean “they are.”

  • “They’re [they are] going to the movies.” – Excellent, they should have a good time.
  • “The book is over they’re [they are].” – What? No. You need your book to be “there.”
  • “They’re [they are] house is beautiful.” – They’d prefer “their house” to be beautiful.

How can you check on “their” versus “there” then? Well, “their” indicates ownership, so you can check to see if someone is owning something.

  • “They forgot their money at home.” – They can own money, so yes. (Also, make sure they pay you back.)
  • “He’s standing over their.” – Can he own “over”? Probably not.

You can also replace “there” or “their” with “in or at that place” to check yourself.

  • “She’s certain her phone is there [in or at that place].” Good.
  • “He’s not sure if there [in or at that place] towels are dry.” Not good. You need “their” here.
4. “Then” is for time, and “than” is for comparisons.

“Then” versus “than” is another one of the most common grammar mistakes—they sound similar and seem sort of related, but they each do different things in sentences. Generally speaking, “then” is an adverb that is used to answer questions related to “when.”

  • “She’ll be coming over then.” When is she coming over? Then.
  • “We went to the store and then to the movies.” When did we go to the movies? Then.

“Than” is a conjunction that is used to compare things.

  • “My grammar is better than yours.” – Rude?
  • “My grammar is worse than yours.” – Possibly true.

What about “if/then”? Is it ever “if/than”? Short answer: no. You’ll always pair “if” with “then.”

Longer answer: “If/then” sentences are conditional sentences, meaning they discuss known factors or hypothetical situations.

  • “If I get done early, then I can go to the party.”
  • “If it’s raining, then I won’t go to the party.”

Note that “then” answering “when?” (i.e., those situations related to time) still applies to if/then sentences.

5. You need a comma before “so” if “so” can be read as “so therefore.”

Our wacky English language loves to have the same word perform varying functions in sentences, including “so.” This little word can operate as an adverb (“I’m so tired”) or as a conjunction. Furthermore, when “so” is acting as a conjunction, sometimes you need pair it with a comma. And (of course) sometimes you don’t.

How do you know the difference?

“So” does not need a comma when you’re introducing a dependent clause (in that case, “so” is acting as a subordinating conjunction). “So” does need a comma when you’re introducing a second independent clause (in that case, “so” is acting as a coordinating conjunction).

You can tell the difference because with dependent clauses, you’ll be able to read “so” as “so that.” With independent clauses, you’ll be able to read “so” as “so therefore.”

  • “I’m going to store so [that] we have food for dinner.”
  • “I’m going to the store, so [therefore] you should put on your shoes.”
Be Firm but Kind with the Rules of Grammar

Because half the rules of English have about 9 million exceptions, making grammar mistakes is generally a question of “when” and not “if.” (Even the most grammar savvy among us will make errors.) As such, always—always—double check your writing when you’re in anything close to resembling a professional setting.

Having said that, don’t be afraid to cut others some slack, especially in instances of “quick” communication (e.g. emails, social media posts, or text messages). Someone could be tired or distracted, or they might not speak English as their first language.

Heck, they might have even triple checked their writing for errors but still missed something. And you know what? It happens. Dismissing someone entirely because they were worried about “affects” and not “effects” can be overly (and annoyingly) pedantic. Grammar is intended to enhance community and clarity, not to act as a gatekeeper with ideas and especially not with people.

More to Come!

Join me again later this week as we explore more about the practices and strategies of good writing. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter!

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