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9 Grammatical Errors (and How to Avoid Them)

by Tom Ashford

I have a confession to make: I’m a bit of a Grammar Nazi. I say “a bit” because there’s a time and a place for it – I rarely use capital letters when typing a message to my friends on Facebook Messenger, for example (even for pronouns). I save all my capital letters up for articles like this; I’m not wasting such a precious resource on the likes of them.

It’s for the greater good, of course. My friends and I constantly berated one of our group for always writing “could of” instead of “could have”, and now he rarely if ever makes that mistake anymore. I’m sure he really appreciates what we did for him.

You might be reading this and thinking, why do I need to be fluent with correct grammar? Everyone makes mistakes – isn’t that what an editor’s for? And you’re right… to an extent. You write the story and the editor makes sure that the mistakes don’t slip through the net (allowing for some poetic license, of course). But unless you’re really rich, you can’t have an editor follow you around everywhere you go making sure that you don’t mess up. And as writers, we really ought to know the language we work in.

Here are nine of the most common mistakes, and how to avoid making them.

1. Wayward Apostrophes

Apostrophes are where most people trip up. The trick is to remember that apostrophes are never used to indicate a plural, only a possession. So dogs have paws, or perhaps you might refer to a dog’s paw. If there are lots of dogs then you’d write the dogs’ paws, because when a group of something possesses something else, the apostrophe comes after the ’s’.

There’s split opinion on this, but if a name ends with ’s’ (take Thomas, for example) you can either add an apostrophe and then another ’s’ (so Thomas’s), or just add an apostrophe (Thomas’). I prefer the latter as I think it looks cleaner. And never use an apostrophe for a date (it’s 1900s, not 1900’s).

2. Its or It’s

Coming straight off the back of wayward apostrophes is another common error – mixing up its and it’s.

As a word, ‘it’ does not get an apostrophe when it comes to applying a plural. If I’m writing about a cat and its cat-bed, there’s no apostrophe.

However, if you’re abbreviating ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ then ‘it’ does get an apostrophe. For example, ‘it’s almost winter’ or ‘it’s been a long time coming’.

3. Your or You’re

It’s simple, but it’s also simple enough to slip through the net. ‘You’re’ is an abbreviation of ‘you are’, whereas ‘your’ indicates possession. For example: Your writing can only improve when you’re looking out for these mistakes.

4. Their, There or They’re

Another attack of the homophones. This one is probably more frequent than the last two put together.

‘There’ is a place or situation: we are going over there, or there isn’t much time left.

‘Their’ indicates possession: their house is much bigger than mine.

‘They’re’ is short for ‘they are’: they’re going to the shops later.

5. Could Have or Could Of

And finally we get to the one that winds me right up. So many people get this wrong, which is understandable as phonetically – when we say it quickly – it sounds as if it should be ‘should of’ (or could of, or would of). But I’m afraid there’s only one correct way of writing it. It’s always ‘have’, not ‘of’.

6. Fewer or Less

Finally, we move away from the apostrophes and homophones. This one is also very common, and also very understandable. It’s not helped that even supermarkets get it wrong (it’s supposed to be ‘ten items or fewer’ not ‘ten items or less’). A lot of people think that the two words are interchangeable, but they actually have two different uses.

Fewer should be used when writing about a number of individual objects, such as cakes or carrots or cows. If you start with ten cows but lose two, then you have fewer cows now than when you started.

Less, on the other hand, should be used when writing about a single thing and its volume, i.e. water. If you have a full glass of water and then you drink half of it, you have less water now than when you started.

So if you trim down your novel you’ll have fewer words and less of a book. Make sense?

7. Me or I

Here’s a really tricky one which even experienced writers get wrong. How do you know whether to use ‘me’ or ‘I’ in a sentence?

Using ‘I’ by itself should be fairly simple – it’s for referring to oneself in the first person. This is the one you’ll be using most often in general conversation.

Choosing between ‘I’ and ‘me’ is a bit harder, particularly when you aren’t the only subject in the sentence. Should it be ‘James and me’ or ‘James or I’? Well, the trick is to take the other person out of the sentence and see if it still sounds right.

“James and I are going to the shops,” is correct because you could also say, “I am going to the shops.” You wouldn’t say, “Me are going to the shops.”

But you would write “Give the camera to James and me,” because you could also write “Give the camera to me.”

By the way: grammatically it doesn’t matter in which order the two people in the sentence go, though the ‘proper’ etiquette is to put ‘I’ or ‘me’ last.

8. Who or Whom

Another confusing one regarding how to address people, but as with the last example there’s a simple trick to working out which to use. ‘Who’ refers to the subject of a sentence; ‘whom’ to the object.

If you can change the sentence so that it makes sense with ‘he’ or ‘she’ then it should be ‘who’, but if the sentence makes better sense using ‘him’ or ‘her’ then you should use ‘whom’. Here are some examples:

“Who is coming to the party?” is correct because you could replace ‘who’ with ‘he’ or ‘she’ and it would still make sense.

“To whom shall I give the camera?” is correct because you could replace ‘whom’ with ‘him’ or ‘her’.

9. Affect or Effect

And finally, here’s another one that catches almost everyone out – affect or effect. But as always, there’s a simple trick to remember in order to always get this right.

Affect is a verb, and effect is a noun. You can affect something, and an effect is the end result. So you can ask “How did that affect you?” or “What effect did that have?” but not switch the two around.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.