Look, I know you love to write. I do, too. Maybe, you spend hours crafting characters, writing novels, and outlining masterpieces. But here’s the thing: without clear and concise prose, all that hard work will never be conveyed to your Reader.
Faulty grammar and syntax can lose your credibility as a writer. Whether you’re writing a novel, short story, or nonfiction piece, you’ve got something in your piece worth reading. But if your writing is muddled and convoluted, your Reader won’t go on long enough to find out. Below are 13 deadly grammar and syntax sins that can kill your prose. Don’t read this article expecting to instantly master every sin, instead, try and be aware of the knife in your hands. Your prose will thank you — and so will your Readers.
1. Sentence fragments
A sentence fragment — also referred to as an “incomplete sentence” —, is just that: an incomplete sentence. Sentence fragments take form in many ways, but most commonly occur when the sentence is missing a subject and/or verb.
Sentence fragments are missing three components that make a true sentence: a subject, a verb, and a complete thought.
Consider the following: On my trip through the Pacific, our family witnessed a lot of strange sights. For example, a crate of native fish from the Middle East.
The second sentence is a fragment; it does not express a full thought. The correct version would be: On my trip through the Pacific, our family witnessed a lot of strange sights. For example, I saw a crate of native fish from the Middle East. There is more than one way to mend a sentence fragment. You can combine, break or omit — whatever works for you. Perhaps the most common example of a sentence fragment is as shown below:
Looking forward to seeing you.
In some cases, this can work. However, when a fragment like this is featured in a professional email, it can hinder your credibility as a writer. Just adding that subject and verb, “I’m,” can add a confident touch.
Sentence fragments can also be a stylistic choice. As long as it’s used with purpose and intent — without confusing your reader — fragments can be okay. If you’re writing a fictitious story, a couple of sentence fragments can add style, but in a professional email or essay, it’s best to avoid them.
2. Subject-verb disagreements
Oh look, it’s Subject and Verb, the base of every sentence and oh — are they fighting, again? Yes, yes they are. The disagreement of Subject and Verb does nothing to help your reader. So, as a writer, it’s your job to make sure the two are always in agreement.
A subject-verb disagreement is when the subject of your sentence, and its corresponding verb, do not match in terms of singularity or plurality. Couple problems, I know. These disagreements can occur for a number of reasons, some of the most common are as follows: when the subject and verb are separated, compound subjects, plural nous with singular meanings, collective nouns as subjects and a couple more.
There is not a single definitive way to get your subject and verb to agree, however, I always find it easiest to track my verb back to my subject and make sure they agree.
For phrases or clauses between your subject and verb, the verb should always agree with the subject rather than the inserted clause. Incorrect: The characters in Rowling’s “Harry Potter” lives in a fantasy world. Correct: The characters in Rowling’s “Harry Potter” live in a fantasy world.
For compound subjects, when there are two subjects connected by “and”, the verb will be plural. If there are two subjects separated by “nor” or “or”, the verb agrees with the closest one. Incorrect: Neither Reyna’s friends nor her hamster like her. Correct: Neither Reyna’s friends nor her hamster like her.
For collective nouns as subjects, the verb should always agree with the explicit and written subject. Incorrect: Each one of my friends get a surprise. Correct: Each one of my friends gets a surprise.
In the end, just like with anything, these two can have a disagreement if done with the intent to serve the prose. If your subject and verb are ever in a rut, just trace them back, and the answer will come.
3. Pronoun-antecedent disagreements
Okay, yes, apparently a lot of the grammar elements like to disagree. This particular element can get controversial when it comes to the singular vs plural “they”, but we’ll cover that in a bit.
As a rule of thumb, a pronoun-antecedent disagreement is when the doesn’t agree in singularity vs plurality and point of view with its antecedent. Antecedent or “ante” refers to a noun or pronoun before a certain pronoun.
Here is a simple example of a pronoun-antecedent disagreement: Apple released their new product. The correct version would be: Apple released its new product. (Keep in mind that brand entities should be referred to as “it” when referring to the entity itself, but when referring to people within, use “they”).
Another incorrect example: Everyone made their own decisions. “Everyone” refers to a singular person, so as a correct sentence, it would be: Everyone made his or her own decision. This is a pronoun-antecedent agreement because both “everyone” and “his or her” match in singularity. This is a place of controversy regarding the singular “their”. In modern language, the incorrect example is correct and acceptable, however, when writing formally it’s best to be aware of your pronoun-antecedent disagreements.
In some cases, pronouns and their antecedents are correct but unclear. For example in a sentence like, “The police and the criminal ran. The police made a left and the criminal made a right. He got the handcuffs.” Obviously, this example is low-grade, but you want to make sure when bringing up two people with the same pronouns to make it clear what is happening to which person, by rewording, using a name or a label.
4. Comma splices and run-ons
We’ve all probably learnt about the sentence that ran too long in grade school. It’s still a problem that can hinder the readability and clarity of your prose.
A run-on sentence is simply any kind of sentence that does not separate its independent clauses with proper punctuation. A comma splice is the incorrect use of a comma without a conjunction to separate two independent clauses. Knowing to identify a comma splice and run-on is basically the solution. Here are a few examples:
Run-on sentence: Jerry made the salad I made the fries. In this case, you could separate it into two sentences (Jerry made the salad. I made the fries), you could add a conjunction (Jerry made the salad and I made the fries), or you could get a little creative and add in a semicolon, or reword your sentence.
Comma splice: Jerry made the salad, I made the fries. In this case, you could add a conjunction before your comma. Jerry made the salad, and I made the fries.
Comma splices and run-ons are small issues but still can have a big impact on your prose, so be aware.
5. Adverbs: to use or not to use
Remember scrolling through countless advice posts as a beginner writer, and seeing the recurring advice: “Do not use adverbs”?
I do, too.
Adverbs are often looked considered a big no-no in the writing community. These “strictly forbidden” descriptors mostly consist of mannerism adverbs. You know the ones:
“I hate you!” Marie roared angrily.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m so excited!” I exclaimed excitedly.
Okay, maybe not the last one but you get my point. This usage of adverbs is redundant and unnecessary. If a question mark is used, you know something is being asked. From the words “I hate you” and “Marie roared”, you can tell she’s angry. And the last one — well, you know what’s wrong with that.
Adverbs are not bad, and they should be used. You have to always know for what purpose — if it’s for redundancy and to state the already-stated as shown above, then please do not use it. However, when it can add something readers did not know then definitely consider it.
6. Ambiguous prepositional phrases
Recently, I finished reading It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande. Since then, the book has become one of my all-time favorite grammar books. Casagrande’s humor, wit and grammar knowledge were appealing and definitely worth the read.
At times, the book was laugh-out-loud. I remember there was a chapter on prepositional phrases, and the title still sticks with me to this day. “Antique Desk Suitable for Lady with Thick Legs and Large Drawers.”
Before even delving into the chapter, I became aware of the danger of prepositional phrases simply through this hilarious example. Here are a few more examples Casagrande gave:
I photographed an elephant in my pyjamas.
Have several very old dresses from grandmother in beautiful condition.
And, my personal favourite: Mixing bowl set designed to please cook with round bottom for efficient beating.
The thing about prepositional phrases is that they’re modifiers. They modify the closest noun. In the book, Casagrande notes, “If you understand them for what they are—modifiers—your sentences will benefit tremendously.”
If you consider the misplaced modifier and trace it back to what it modifies, the solution will often be simple. “I photographed an elephant in my pyjamas” becomes “In my pyjamas, I photographed an elephant”.
Other fixes might not be as easy, but with a little bit of rewording, you can correctly place your preposition once and for all.
7. Dangling participles
Dangling participles first came to my attention while watching an episode of Comma Queen, called “Oh my! Your Participle is Dangling”. Needless to say, I watched the video. Later, I did more research on participles. Specifically, the ones that dangled. I came across a lovely blog by The Write Practice, titled “Don’t Leave Your Participles Dangling”
I learned two things that day. 1: Grammar sticklers got really punny with their titles, especially when it comes to dangling participles, and 2: Dangling participles can harm your prose. They go absolutely nowhere.
To start off basic, a participle has many functions but the main one is when a verb acts as an adjective. “Let’s hike that trail,” features a verb. “The hiking people have passed,” features a participle. A participial phrase on the other hand is a phrase containing a participle that modifies a noun or noun phrase. For example, “Lying on the grass, he gets lost in his thoughts.”
“Lying on the grass” is the participle phrase and “lying” is the participle. It modifies “he”.
Now, we know about the participle, but what about the dangling? Good question.
In every article or book I’ve read about dangling participles, the examples are hilarious. Most of the time, they go like this:
Walking in high heels, my dog barked.
Sweaty and furious, my run slowed down.
Dreaming of my girlfriend, my foot stepped into the puddle.
The problem with dangling participles is that they modify the wrong noun. The solutions are usually easy. The first example can change to “Walking in high heels, I watched my dog bark,” or As I walked in high heels, my dog barked”. The rest of the examples would be fixed the same way.
While dangling participles can offer a good laugh when editing, it’s best to keep them from dangling in your prose.
8. Faulty Parallelism
Faulty parallelism (also referred to as a parallel construction error) occurs most often in lists when the structure of a sentence is not grammatically parallel. Usually, the words in the list will have equal meanings but aren’t grammatically similar. Below, are some examples.
Incorrect: I like to read, running around the backyard and play with my friends.
Correct: I like to read, run around the backyard, and play with my friends.
Incorrect: Anxiety gets in the way of his objective to react, thinking, and judging.
Correct: Anxiety gets in the way of his objecive to react, think, and judge.
Incorrect: The students are smart, intelligent, and like to study.
Correct: Intelligent and smart, the students like to study.
See? They read much better now.
Faulty parallelism is often overlooked in longer, more complex sentences. There isn’t a single solution except to carefully consider each sentence and a possible solution. As June Casagrande put it, “There’s no simple formula for getting it right every time. All you can do is proceed with caution and remember the Reader.”
The best way I can explain its intended purpose is that it’s meant to, well, subordinate.
The problem that occurs with subordination is that it can often reduce the grammatical status of a sentence. Let’s back it up real quick.
Subordination is the process of joining two clauses in a sentence so that one is subordinate to the other. Have a look at an example:
Before travelling the world, I sat around all day.
This sentence snuffs out the action, which presumably is travelling the world. If you said, “After sitting around all day for a lifetime, I decided to travel the world”, it puts the most interesting action as the main point. Notice how everything before the comma, or the first clause, is said in a rushed manner while the second clause stands out more.
Subordination is one of the reasons why many sentence-nerds and English profs say to “keep your most interesting clause till the end of the sentence”. And most of the time, they’re right.
Subordination can be useful, powerful even. Just make sure you’re always highlighting the most important information—instead of reducing it.
10. Relative pronouns & relative clauses
Alright, let’s keep this relevant: a relative pronoun is a word that introduces a relative, or dependent, clause and links it to the independent one. They are also sometimes referred to as “adjective clauses” because they give us additional information about the independent clause. Here are the five main relative pronouns:
Who: Refers to a person (as the verb’s subject)
Whom: Refers to a person (as the verb’s object)
Which: Refers to an animal or thing
What: Refers to a nonliving thing
That: Refers to a person, animal, or thing
There are a few small errors that can occur with relative pronouns.
First error: That vs. which.
These are easily confused. The easiest way to distinguish the two is to remember that that introduces a restrictive clause and which introduces a non-restrictive clause.
A restrictive clause is a clause that, if removed, the whole meaning of the sentence would change. Non-restrictive clauses are the opposite.
All groceries that I buy must be cheap.
If you removed the relative clause, the sentence wouldn’t make sense. All groceries should not be cheap (although it would be great if they were).
The groceries, which I bought, were cheap.
If you removed the relative clause, the sentence would still make sense.
The easiest way to remember the difference between the two is that non-restrictive clauses are separated by commas, while restrictive clauses aren’t.
Second error: the zero relative
This is less of an error and more a choice. You could write: George won the toy that I wanted or George won the toy I wanted. Whether or not to include “that” is entirely up to you.
Third error: not keeping pronouns and antecedents close
As we covered earlier in the article, an antecedent is a noun that a pronoun refers to.
The house beside the huge tower, which is abandoned, scares me.
This is ambiguous. Is the house what’s causing the scare, or the tower? And which one is abandoned?
Always make sure that you keep your pronouns and antecedents close — to prevent disagreement.
Those are some of the basic relative pronoun and clause facts. Relatively straightforward, wasn’t it?
11. Abstract vs concrete
New writers often live by the age-old advice, “show don’t tell”. We’ve probably all heard of the “show when needed and also tell when needed” retort against the former.
I’ve always liked to think of “show don’t tell” as “concrete, not abstract,” or “describe don’t explain”. See, sometimes you may need to show detail, sometimes you may need to tell it. But either way, your words and ideas should always be concrete. Consider the following:
I bought a sandwich vs I bought a half-melted ice-cream sandwich.
Sometimes, these details are unnecessary and other times, they add intrigue. You can learn more about the importance of specificity here.
12. Word and spelling mixups
Here are the most common mixups that you should avoid in your writing.
It’s / its: The former is a contraction of “it is” while the latter is a possessive version of it and does not contain an apostrophe.
They’re / their / there: “They’re” is a contraction for “they are”. “Their” denotes a possession. “There” refers to a place.
Effect / affect: “Effect” is a noun, “affect” is a verb.
E.g / i.e: E.g is Latin for “for example, while i.e can mean “that is”.
There are lots more of these spelling mixups, you can see a compilation of them here.
13. Not prioritizing your Reader enough
I’m sure as you read through this list of deadly grammar and syntax sins, you thought at least once that you’ve read a book using one of these errors. That’s okay. I have, too.
Grammar rules are meant to be broken; it’s only how you break them that matters. I’ve always stuck to the saying, “Learn the rules and then break them.” It applies to grammar as well. If you’re making grammatical errors because you aren’t aware of the rules, then learn them. But, if the errors are intentional and there to serve your Reader, then I applaud you.
Your writing should always prioritize your Reader, even if you don’t ever intend for anyone to read your work.
If you’re asking, “Well, how do I know which rules to break and which ones to stick to?”
Just think about what your Reader would want, and then you’ll know.
first ventured into the world of writing with her sister. Since then, she has gone to explore different genres and styles: short fiction, literary fiction and most recently, non-fiction. When she’s not writing she can be found spending time with family, going on walks, or watching the latest grammar videos. Follow her on Instagram @mashalashfaqofficial.Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.