Fixing Writing Errors
Structure and Usage
Words and Expressions
Structure and usage
Adverbs can be sources of confusion for writers—and for readers. Misplacement of almost, even, just, merely, nearly, not, simply, and only can lead to unintended meaning. Notice how different meanings are achieved with different placement of the same adverb. In the first example, almost modifies I, the speaker. In the second example, almost modifies two hours.
• I almost worked two hours overtime.
• I worked almost two hours overtime.
So-called squinting or double duty modifiers unintentionally modify more than one word. In the following example, sometimes seems to modify both stare at and suffer from, potentially confusing a reader.
• Awkward: Those who spend long hours staring at a computer monitor sometimes suffer from eye strain.
• Better: Those who spend long hours staring at a computer monitor suffer from eye strain sometimes.
• Or reword the sentence: Staring at a computer monitor for long hours can sometimes result in eye strain.
See also Adverb position in Grammar Snacks.
Many adverbs may be formed by adding the -ly suffix to certain adjectives: slow—slowly, quick—quickly, and neat—neatly are examples. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all words ending in -ly are adverbs. Some adjectives also end in -ly, including friendly, timely, lowly, and ghastly, and these adjectives may not be used as adverbs.
A phrase that is an afterthought must be a part of a sentence. The phrase even in winter is punctuated as a sentence below, but it cannot be a sentence because it does not have a subject and a verb.
• I'll never visit that hot climate again. Even in winter.
An unessential afterthought may be added to a sentence following a comma, however.
• I'll never visit that hot climate again, even in winter.
An antecedent is a word that a pronoun replaces or refers to. In the following example, the mechanic is the antecedent of the pronoun he.
• The mechanic did not touch the air-conditioner because he did not know how to repair it.
A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in three ways. It must be the same in number (singular or plural), person (first, second, or third), and gender (masculine or feminine), if applicable.
• We found my passport in my suitcase, which was in the attic.
Suitcase is the antecedent of which. Which agrees with suitcase in number (singular), and in person (third person).
When an antecedent is not clear, ambiguity can result. In the following sentence, the meaning of he is unclear.
• The officer spotted the gunman, and then he fled.
Does he refer to the officer or to the gunman? This ambiguity will slow a reader down and may cause confusion. The following is a clarification.
• The officer spotted the gunman, and then the officer fled.
A singular pronoun must have a singular antecedent and a plural pronoun must have a plural antecedent. The plural pronoun they has a singular antecedent, store, in the following sentence.
• I rarely shop at that store because they do not have enough checkout lanes.
• Clarification: I rarely shop at that store because it does not have enough checkout lanes.
The antecedent each player does not agree with the possessive pronoun their in the following sentence.
• Each player needs to have their own equipment.
• Clarification: Each player needs to have his or her own equipment.
Avoid using all uppercase letters for emphasis.
See Capital letters in Punctuation Points.
Include an entire dependent clause in a comparative sentence when the subject alone may mislead a reader.
• I like this neighborhood more than my son.
Does the writer like the neighborhood more than he likes his son? Including the entire clause helps clarify the writer's intention.
• I like this neighborhood more than my son likes the neighborhood.
Keep in mind that as is a conjunction that introduces a clause and like is a preposition that introduces a phrase.
• Phrase: The toddler sat in the dentist's chair like an experienced patient but cried at the barbershop.
• Clause: Marvin showed up late as I expected he would.
Use the past perfect in an if-clause to express a hypothetical past condition.
• If I had known about the sale, I would have gone to the store earlier.
• Common error: If I would have known about the sale, I would have gone to the store earlier.
See also Conditional sentences in Grammar Snacks.
Formal written English should contain no contractions or very minimal use of them. Minimal use of contractions includes I'm, and it's (a contraction of it is; avoid it's as a contraction of it has with the present perfect verb).
The subject of a main clause must be the same as the implied subject of a participial phrase in a sentence.
Dangling present participial phrase
In the following sentence, the desk, the subject of the main clause, cannot be modified by having two jobs. It is not the desk that has two jobs.
• Dangling: Having two jobs, the desk is sometimes a pillow for the new employee.
• Clarified: Having two jobs, the new employee sometimes sleeps at his desk.
• Dangling: After preparing food for our party all day, our invited guests called and said they could not come.
It is not the guests who were preparing food all day. Rewording the sentence makes the sentence clear.
• Clarified: After preparing food for our party all day, my wife and I were not happy to learn that our invited guests could not come.
Dangling past participial phrase
In the following examples, it is not clear what the past participial phrase modifies.
• Dangling: Hired only yesterday, the boss told the new employee that today was his last day.
The new employee was hired yesterday, not the boss.
• Clarified: Hired only yesterday, the new employee was told by the boss that today was his last day.
• Dangling: Although postmarked on the first of the month, I did not receive the letter until the fifteenth.
It was the letter that was postmarked, not I.
• Clarified: Although postmarked on the first of the month, the letter did not arrive until the fifteenth.
Either and neither refer to one of two, not both, so a singular verb usually follows these correlative conjunctions. In the following examples, however, the correlative conjunction is followed immediately by a plural noun making a singular verb sound awkward; use a plural verb in this case.
• Awkward: Either his sister or his brothers is going to help him move to a new place.
Change the positions of the subjects to make the verb sound natural or use a plural verb.
• Better: Either his brothers or his sister is going to help him move to a new place.
• Better: Either his sister or his brothers are going to help him move to a new place.
Either and neither must be as near as possible to the words that they modify.
• Misplaced: Either you study now or take the course again next semester.
• Correct: You either study now or take the course again next semester.
• Incorrect: I neither graduated from high school nor from college.
• Correct: I graduated neither from high school nor from college.
See also Neither—nor in Parallel structure below.
Misplaced prepositional phrases
Careless placement of prepositional phrases can lead to unintended meanings and awkward reading.
• Misplaced: Betty learned how to make delicious pumpkin bread from an old cookbook.
Was the main ingredient an old cookbook? That conclusion is going to bring the reader back to the beginning of the sentence for a reread. A prepositional phrase needs to be positioned as near as possible to the word or words that it modifies.
• Clarification: Betty learned from an old cookbook how to make delicious pumpkin bread.
Misplaced adjective clauses
An adjective clause must follow as closely as possible the word or words that it modifies.
• Misplaced: The young man is on our basketball team whom I introduced you to yesterday.
Was the basketball team introduced, or was the young man introduced?
• Clarification: The young man whom I introduced you to yesterday is on our basketball team.
• Misplaced: Pat gave the photograph to his father that he took with his new camera.
• Clarification: Pat gave the photograph that he took with his new camera to his father.
The correlative conjunction neither—nor is different from the coordinating conjunction nor. No comma separates the nor of a correlative conjunction from a word or phrase that comes before or after it.
• Incorrect: Neither Hanna's Market, nor Cho's Garage, was damaged in the tornado.
• Correct: Neither Hanna's Market nor Cho's Garage was damaged in the tornado.
See also Either—or; neither—nor above and neither—nor in Parallel structure below.
The coordinating conjunction nor is commonly misused. Keep in mind that nor is negative and means and not. Nor is used to introduce a pattern in a sentence that is the same structure as one before it. For example, in the following sentences, two independent clauses are joined with nor.
• I don't like to eat breakfast, nor do I eat between meals.
• Elena doesn't speak Spanish, nor does Raul.
Nor is commonly used incorrectly in place of or.
• Incorrect: I can't meet you on Thursday nor on Friday.
• Correct: I can't meet you Thursday or on Friday. Or I can't meet you on Thursday, nor can I meet you on Friday.
• Incorrect: Don't expect me to drive you to school nor pick you up.
• Correct: Don't expect me to drive you to school or pick you up.
An object pronoun may not be a subject. Use a subject pronoun in place of a subject noun.
• Subject pronouns: He and I are not best friends anymore.
• Not: Him and me are not best friends anymore.Use an object pronoun following a preposition.
• He and she are the subjects of the story. The whole story is about him and her.
See Pronouns following prepositions.
Review Pronouns in Grammar Snacks.
Parallel structure involves the repetition of a pattern of words in a sentence, such as a clause or a phrase. Parallel structure contributes greatly to coherence and cohesion.
In the following example, the compound subject comprises two gerund nouns and one non-gerund noun. In order to be parallel, the nouns need to follow the same pattern, as in the second example.
• Nonparallel: Running, lifting weights, and dance are my favorite ways to exercise.
• Parallel: Running, lifting weights, and dancing are my favorite ways to exercise.
In the following comparison, the second phrase is not the same in structure as the first.
• Nonparallel: Most of us enjoy going to the theater more than to go to the cinema.
• Parallel: Most of us enjoy going to the theater more than going to the cinema.
• Nonparallel: We have gone to the library, done the shopping, and we cleaned the garage.
• Parallel: We have gone to the library, done the shopping, and cleaned the garage.
• Nonparallel: The window frames were scraped, washed, and he painted them.
• Parallel: The window frames were scraped, washed, and painted.
• Parallel: He scraped, washed, and painted the window frames.
Correlative conjunction neither—nor
The element that follows the first part of a correlative conjunction must be parallel in structure with the element that follows the second part of the conjunction.
• Nonparallel: My father is neither technically skilled nor is he athletically inclined.
• Parallel: My father is neither technically skilled nor athletically inclined.
• Nonparallel: My older brother not only taught me important skills but also patience.
• Parallel: My older brother taught me not only important skills but also patience.
Do not avoid using the passive voice. In many cases it is more appropriate than the active voice and can contribute to concise writing.
See Passive voice in Grammar Snacks.
Avoid substituting a past participle for the past tense.
• Past tense: saw; past participle: seen
• Past tense: knew; past participle: known
• Past tense: ate; past participle: eaten
A past participle is only part of a verb form. Notice how the past participle of see and know are used with the present perfect and past perfect tense.
• Present perfect: I have seen this movie before. Let's leave.
• Past perfect: If I had known that, I would have suggested something else.
See Past participle in Grammar Snacks.
The past tense and present perfect form in a direct quotation are changed to the past perfect form in an indirect quotation when the verb in the introductory clause is in the past tense.
• Direct quotation: The coach said, “The team was playing well.”
• Indirect quotation: The coach said the team had been playing well.
• Direct quotation: Our teacher said, “The final exam has been canceled.”
• Indirect quotation: Our teacher said that the final exam had been canceled.
• Direct quotation: Michael reported, “The weather was beautiful over the weekend in Cuba.”
• Indirect quotation: Michael reported the weather had been beautiful over the weekend in Cuba.
When the past perfect occurs in a direct quotation, that verb form is maintained in the indirect quotation.
• Direct quotation: A tourist surprised me when she said, “I had never expected so much traffic in Tokyo.”
• Indirect quotation: A tourist surprised me when she said that she had never expected so much traffic in Tokyo.
See Object pronoun above.
Review Pronouns in Grammar Snacks.
Everyone is regarded as singular and takes a third-person singular verb form. It cannot be the antecedent of a plural pronoun.
• Incorrect: When everyone left the classroom, they all cheered.
One solution is to replace everyone with a noun.
• Correction:When the students left the classroom, they all cheered.
A pronoun following a preposition is the object of the preposition, so an object pronoun must be used.
Subject pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, they
Object pronouns: me, you, him, her, it, us, them
Example with the preposition between:
• Incorrect: between you and I
• Correct: between you and me
A reflexive pronoun cannot be not the subject of a sentence.
• Incorrect: Luis and myself witnessed the accident.
• Correct: Luis and I witnessed the accident.
A reflexive or intensive pronoun may be used for emphasis.
• I myself do not believe he is guilty.
Two independent clauses joined without a conjunction and with or without a comma is a run-on sentence.
• Run-on: The party did not end until 2 a.m., we left before that, however.
• Correction: The party did not end until 2 a.m.; we left before that, however.
• Run-on: The food was not great we met a lot of interesting people.
• Correction: The food was not great, but we met a lot of interesting people.
To use a verb correctly, it is necessary to know the simple or true subject of a sentence. In the example below, the simple subject is underlined. The plural students may be a part of the complete subject, but the simple subject, teacher is singular. A singular subject requires a third-person-singular verb with a final -s. The phrase of the 47 students does not influence the conjugation of the verb.
• The teacher of the 47 students looks a bit weary when she leaves class every day.
Avoid using a pronoun as a shadow subject to unnecessarily repeat a subject. For example, in the following sentence, the shadow subject is she.
• Masha she is always so loud.
Omit the pronoun she. Shadow subjects are not necessarily objectionable in speech, which is why they sometimes find their way into our writing.
The subject of an imperative sentence—a request or a command—is always a singular or plural you. The pronoun you is usually not stated.
• Please have a seat.
There is never the subject of a sentence. The noun that follows there is or there are is the subject. The subject is one other student in the following example, and since the subject is singular, the verb be is singular (is).
• There is only one other student in my class.
Adverbial conjunctions are adverbs that modify an entire sentence. Frequently, on the other hand, generally, and for example are examples of adverbial conjunctions. Always use a comma after an adverb that modifies an entire sentence. See Conjunctions in Grammar Snacks.
Sometimes these adverbial conjunctions are called transitions, but that is a bit misleading because they are not the only kind of transition. A pronoun can also be a transition, and almost invariably is.
Use used to for past customary behavior. Negatives and yes/no-question word order require use to.
• I used to like to play soccer, but not anymore.
• But: I didn't use to like to play American football. Didn't you use to play professionally?
In general, avoid the progressive (continuous verb form) with verbs that express a state of mind or condition or stative or static situation at a given time, such as reflected in most uses of the verbs own, seem, know, like, prefer, want, and need.
• Incorrect: He is liking his new job.
• Correct: He likes his new job.
• Incorrect: She is wanting more time for herself.
• Correct: She wants more time for herself.
Progressive forms of stative verbs may be heard in certain dialects or idioms, but they should be eschewed in written English.
• Correct: He's having a party tomorrow evening.
• But not: He's having three cars.
Correct verb tense is particularly important to sentence clarity, and while different verb tenses may be used in successive clauses or sentences, a writer needs to be sure that a mixture of tenses accurately reflects reality. It is not difficult to unintentionally shift verb tense. The following are examples of tense shift. Notice that the shift in verb tense makes the sentence unclear.
• Incorrect: First, the car refused to start, and then it starts to rain.
• Correct: First, the car refused to start, and then it started to rain.
• Incorrect: Robert comes in and says “hello,” and then he walked out.
• Correct: Robert came in and said “hello,” and then he walked out.
In the following awkward sentence, the verbs of both of the clauses are in the past tense; however, the conjunction before places the second clause chronologically before the first clause. This requires the past perfect in the second clause.
• Incorrect: Before I told him what happened, he already got a text message explaining everything.
• Correct: Before I told him what happened, he had already gotten a text message explaining everything.
The following is another example. The verbs of the two clauses are in the past tense; however, the action in the second clause, the noun clause, occurs before the action in the introductory clause with told. The past perfect is required in this instance.
• Incorrect: I told Mari I sent her an invitation.
• Correct: I told Mari I had sent her an invitation.
Use who as a subject pronoun and whom as an object.
See Pronouns in Grammar Snacks.
The following word order error in a noun clause is common.
• Incorrect: Do you know how much are you going to spend?
• Incorrect: Everyone wants to know what are you going to do.
Use statement word order in a noun clause: subject + verb.
• Correct: Do you know how much you are going to spend?
• Correct: Everyone wants to know what you are going to do.
Words and expressions
Several compound words have different meanings when they are spelled with a space between the words. For example, anyone is a pronoun meaning no one in particular. Any one refers to no particular one from a group. Anyone generally refers to people. Any one can be used with both animate and inanimate objects.
Everyday is an adjective. Every day is usually an adverb and an expression of frequency.
Could of and should of are phonetic spellings of could have and should have, which are used to form the present perfect with could and should.
• We should have left earlier.
Many words are spelled phonetically in commercial writing, but those spellings should not be used in formal writing. Examples are luv (love), thru (through), sez (says), and gonna (going to).
Its is a possessive pronoun. It's is a contraction of it is and it has. Use the contraction of it has only in very informal writing with a past participle to form the present perfect verb.
Lets is the third person singular form of the verb let, meaning allow or permit. Let's is a contracted form of let us.
Avoid these ones and those ones. The plural of this one and that one is these and those.
accept: to receive or approve
except: exclude, excluding
affect: verb, to influence
effect: noun, accomplishment, result; as a verb: to cause or accomplish
all ready: prepared, all set
already: prior to a point in time
alright: a misspelling of all right
all right: the correct spelling
among: in the company of, included in a group of three or more
between: this preposition associates two things or persons
amuse: to entertain
bemuse: to bewilder or confuse
beside: next to, side by side
besides: in addition to
choose: to make a selection
chose: past tense of choose
cite: to refer to, to quote
site: a place or venue
sight: sense of vision, something seen
complement: to contribute to a whole, to go together
compliment: to express admiration or respect
criterion: singular of the Latin word
criteria: plural of criterion
discreet: unobtrusive, prudent
discrete: separate or not continuous
dying: -ing form of the verb die—to come to the end of life
dyeing: -ing form of the verb dye—to color
economic: adjective, having to do with an effect on the economy
economical: adjective, having to do with a kind of efficiency
farther: more distant
further: additional time
fewer: quantity with count nouns
less: quantity with noncount nouns
historic: significant, important in history
historical: based on history
imply: to suggest indirectly
infer: to conclude indirectly
lay: vt (lay, laid, laid) to put something down on a surface
lie: vi (lie, lay, lain) to recline horizontally
led: past tense of lead, to act as a leader
lead: a chemical element, a metal
literally: to be a fact or actual
lose: to misplace a thing
loose: the opposite of tight
passed: to complete a lesson successfully
past: before now
precede: to come before
proceed: to go ahead
principle: a fundamental law or base of morality
principal: a person of authority, or main part of something
raise: vt to bring up, to awaken (an object is necessary)
rise: vi to get up, to come up (an object is not necessary)
real: adjective, true or actual
really: adverb, very
sit: vi to take a position in a chair
set: vt to put something in a place
than: a conjunction and preposition used in comparisons
then: adverb, after a certain time
their: possessive pronoun
there: adverb, place or location
they're: contraction of they are
who's: the contraction of who is
whose: possessive pronoun
Check a dictionary for the meanings of these sometimes confusing word pairs.
adopt, adapt; • all together, altogether; • anecdote, antidote
borrow, lend, loan; • brake, break • breath, breathe
cease, seize • confidant, confident • costume, custom
continual, continuous • council, counsel • dairy, diary
deceased, diseased • decent, descent, dissent • device, devise
die, dye • elicit, illicit • emigrate, immigrate
ensure, insure • envelop, envelope • fair, fare
finally, finely • forth, fourth • gorilla, guerrilla
heal, heel • human, humane • incredible, incredulous
lend, loan • lightening, lightning • magnate, magnet
miner, minor • patience, patients • persecute, prosecute
preposition, proposition • raise, raze • residence, residents
respectfully, respectively • role, roll • sense, since