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Grammar is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor grammar will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.
In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand grammar to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!
Participle phrase misuse
By far the most common grammar problem we encounter in critiques is participle phrase misuse. It’s so frequent that we have a separate article on it.
Sentence fragments are also known as incomplete sentences. Sentences can be as short as one word, but they need to have a verb and a subject. It may be tempting to write without using complete sentences because. It. Feels. Dramatic. but it will quickly annoy or confuse your reader.
One-word sentences, like “Move!”, have only a verb (action word), and the subject (usually “you”) is implied.
Don’t: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. Hard. “Move!” he yelled.
“Hard.” is a sentence fragment—it is not a complete sentence. Only verbs can be one-word complete sentences.
Do: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. “Move!”
“Move!” is a complete sentence—it’s a verb issued as a command.
Two-word sentences have a verb and a subject.
Don’t: My dog Barfy ate his dinner. Super fast. Then Barfy barfed.
“Super fast.” is a sentence fragment.
Do: My dog Barfy ate his dinner super fast. Barfy barfed.
“Barfy barfed.” is a complete sentence because it contains both a subject (Barfy) and a verb (barfed).
This is very simple stuff that can usually be caught by reading your story aloud. Most people know this stuff intuitively because it will “sound wrong”.
Don’t: “I were running in the woods. I thought monsters was chasing me.”
Do: “I was running in the woods. I thought monsters were chasing me.”
Long sentences with large separations between subject and verb can still be troublesome.
Don’t: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, were resting inside his dog house.”
Do: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, was resting inside his dog house.”
Pronoun antecedent problems
Pronouns are words like “he” and “she” and “they” and “it”. They are used as placeholders for another word (usually a person, place, thing, or idea). When in doubt, play it safe and re-use the original word rather than the pronoun.
Don’t: “Stan and Bill went fishing. He caught a red snapper.”
In this case, we don’t know WHO caught the red snapper.
Do: “Stan and Bill went fishing. Stan caught a red snapper.”
Don’t: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then they ran off.”
Which gang ran off?
Do: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then the Bloods ran off.”
Mismatched verb tenses
A verb is an action word. The “tense” of a story is usually past or present. The tense affects the form of the verb that you use. Make sure to be consistent throughout the story and stick to one tense unless you need to change it to be clear about when something happened.
Past tense: “The judge sentenced me to twenty years. I swore my revenge. I broke out of jail, found the judge, and threw a pie in his face.”
Present tense: “The judge sentences me to twenty years. I swear my revenge. I break out of jail, find the judge, and throw a pie in his face.”
Future tense: “The judge will sentence me to twenty years. I will swear my revenge. I will break out of jail, will find the judge, and will throw a pie in his face.”
Note that the past perfect tense is used when describing an event that happened before the current point in time in a story.
Past tense: “I took my dog outside to poop, and he dropped a big one.”
Past perfect tense: “I had taken him out to poop the day before, but he didn’t go.”
Using the wrong word
We can all think of examples that sound foolish, but we’ve also all been guilty of either mistyping or misunderstanding words. There are so many of these, but here are a few of the most common:
Affect – a verb (action word). – The movie didn’t affect me.
Effect – a noun (a thing). – I loved the movie’s special effects.
Could of, would of, should of – these are wrong
Could have, would have, should have – these are correct
i.e. – means “that is”. – He was a moldy soul, i.e. he never bathed.
e.g. – means “for example”. – He was rotting, e.g. mushrooms grew on his toes.
It’s – a contraction of “it is” or “it was”. – It’s cold out today.
Its – a possessive pronoun. – The dog chased its tail.
Lie, lay, lain – to recline or to rest.
I lie on the couch. I lay on the couch. I had lain on the couch.
Lay, laid, laid – to put something down.
I lay a new asphalt driveway. I laid a new asphalt driveway. I had laid a new asphalt driveway.
Lose – a verb meaning to misplace something. – Don’t lose your marbles over this.
Loose – an adjective meaning sloppy or untied. – His necktie was too loose.
To – specifies a direction, or is used with an infinitive verb. – I flew on my dragon to the castle. It is nice to have a dragon.
Two – the number (2). – My dragon burnt up two soldiers at the gates.
Too – meaning “also.” – The king and queen got torched too.
Their – indicates possession. – Their house is falling down.
They’re – a contraction of “they are.” – They’re the weirdest people I know.
There – a place. – Don’t go in there, honey.
Then – indicates what happens next. – We went in the mausoleum then the crypt.
Than – used for comparison. – The zombie was nicer than the mummy.
Weather – what the climate is up to. Hey Larry Bird, how’s the weather up there?
Whether – indicates a choice. – Larry couldn’t decide whether to ball or retreat.
Your – indicates possession. Your dog is ugly.
You’re – contraction of “you are”. Therefore, you’re ugly too.