6 (More) Mistakes Writers Make
by Tom Ashford
Everybody makes mistakes in their writing – that’s what editors are for. A little while ago I put together a list of some of the most common errors authors stumble over in their quest for literary greatness (you can read it here). Here are six of the tricker ones.
Incorrect Singular/ Plural Verb Usage
The subject of a sentence and its verb must match – if the subject is singular then so must the verb, and if the subject is plural then the verb must be too. Case in point:
The best part of my day was walking my two dogs (‘day’ is the singular subject, ‘was’ is singular).
My two dogs, Max and Woof, were the best part of my day (‘Max’ and ‘Woof’ are the two subjects – plural, so ‘were’ is plural too).
A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence (they lack a subject and/or verb). They usually require the preceding sentence in order to make sense. It’s an easy fix – use a comma to attach the two clauses together to form a single sentence.
Incorrect: I went to the shop. Then bought a book. (‘Then bought a book’ is not a complete sentence by itself.)
Correct: I went to the shop, then bought a book.
There are plenty of different opportunities for wayward commas; they’re probably as common as wayward apostrophes. One example is not using them after an introductory word or clause (basically the reverse version of the sentence fragment example above). Another is using a comma after a conjunction. If your clause starts with an ‘and’ or ‘but’ or other conjunction, you should be using a comma.
Incorrect: I went to the shop to buy a book but they closed before I got there.
Correct: I went to the shop to buy a book, but they closed before I got there.
Using a modifier (adjective) in the wrong place in a sentence can be at worst confusing, at best amusing. Case in point:
Incorrect: I went to the market and bought a dusty woman’s book.
It doesn’t take a huge mental leap to realise that I mean I bought a dusty book from a woman, rather than a book from a dusty woman. But it should be written like this:
Correct: I went to the market and bought a woman’s dusty book.
Colons and Semi-colons
Few people have truly mastered the semi-colon. Often a full-stop (/period) will work just as well. Or we could try that again: Few people have truly mastered the semi-colon; often a full-stop will work just as well. Use them to separate two sentences which can stand alone, or to separate items in a list.
As for regular colons, use them to introduce something – a reason or list. But only do this when the sentence prior to the colon makes sense by itself.
Incorrect: I went to the market for: books, apples and shoes (‘I went to the market for’ is not a complete sentence).
Correct: I went to the market for three things: books, apples and shoes (‘I went to the market for three things’ is a complete sentence).
An antecedent is a word that replaces another later on in the same sentence. For example, Tom is used in the following sentence, and is replaced by ‘he’ the second time he’s mentioned.
Tom went to the shop because he wanted to buy a book.
This only becomes confusing when more than two pronouns are mentioned, leading to the ‘he’ or ‘she’, or ‘his’ or ‘her’ to become ambiguous. Case in point:
Tom and Chris went to the pub to celebrate his promotion.
Whose promotion is it, Tom’s or Chris’? In situations like these, it’s best to make it clear – even if it ends up sounding a little formal.
Tom and Chris went to the pub to celebrate Chris’ promotion.
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