Easy Grammar Tips for Writing
Why It's Important
I admit it, I'm a grammar snob. It's probably not fair for me, but I judge the quality of a person's article partly based on whether it's written well or not. I've known plenty of intelligent people who can't spell or use proper English to save their lives, but I wouldn't subscribe to their newsletters! Hopefully, they'll choose a career based on something that reflects their strong skills and leave the writing to people who know how to do it. (I wouldn't pay a mechanic to treat my asthma, or a doctor to fix my car, either. Just sayin'.)
It's fine to break grammar rules when it serves a purpose. This can benefit an author and make his or her writing better. In most cases, though, it has the opposite effect. Readers will not give a writer credibility or remember what they've said if it's written poorly.
As a lifelong English speaker and writer who has consistently tested in the top two percent of all Americans for grammar, spelling, and writing skills, I hope I can offer some useful information to people who want to improve their grammar.
Keep reading to discover tips on how to ensure that your grammar is top-notch.
Good Sites for Free English Lessons
- Free English Grammar Lessons and Tests
Free online English grammar lessons and tests. Glossary of grammatical terms and common grammar errors.
- Free English Lessons
Thousands of free online English Lessons to help you learn quickly.
- English Freestyle.com
This site offers written, video, and audio lessons.
Free English Lessons
American English is not an easy language to master. A large percentage of people born in the United States can only read and write at a sixth grade level. For this reason, television shows, newspapers, and magazine articles are written to enable the average sixth grader to understand the material. More difficult material is usually only found in college textbooks, technical guides, and other specialized publications.
I've noticed many online writers who learned English as a second language are attempting to earn money by writing or creating websites to be read by native speakers. Often, their work reveals that they have learned basic English and can write as write as well as many Americans. However, language differences can cause them to make frequent mistakes - including the kind that would be noticed by an average sixth grader.
Free English lessons are available online to help both ESL (English as a Second Language) and native speakers who struggle with the language. The sites linked at the right allow people to select specific topics for improvement:
- Parts of speech - adjectives, adverbs, subject and object structure, nouns, verbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns
- Irregular verbs - verbs that don't follow normal rules for conjugation into past, present, and future tense
- Vocabulary - word choices to best express an idea
- Verb Tense - how to say things that already happened, are happening, or will happen
- Punctuation - how to use commas, periods, apostrophes, quotation marks, parentheses, and more
It would be impossible to cover all of these things in a single article on grammar, so from this point forward I'll be writing about the things that confuse people who already have a good understanding of English but need ways to remember some of the trickier rules.
What Do You Do
When you see an author's poor spelling and grammar, what do you do?
Spell Check and Grammar Check
It's always a good idea to edit the first draft of something you've written, and computers make it easy to do a quick review.
Using the spelling and grammar checks available in word processors like Microsoft Word can help minimize errors, but even these backup measures can sometimes make mistakes, especially when the writing may involve abbreviations. Plus, they may not always be accessible as you're writing or may offer choices that don't make sense to use.
Another tool that may be helpful to use is PaperRater, which allows you to cut and paste your title, content, and sources (when applicable), mark which type of paper you're writing and your education level so the program can perform a basic analysis. It, too, has its limitations, but it provides a good basic overview of whatever you're writing. For instance, the introduction module of this article reported that I used no vocabulary at all, and "graded" my writing as a "B," based in part on its perception that I did not use vocabulary!
Once you have finished your first draft, also called a "rough draft," using your computer's spelling and grammar check to look for those squiggly red and green lines will help you get it into readable shape. Using PaperRater as the next step will help fine tune it even further.
However, if you'd like to avoid making tedious changes to your writing, here are some memorization tips to make it easier to keep the correct rules in mind as you're writing.
A Fast Talking Jab at English Grammar
Examples of Poor Grammar
Check Your Understanding
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Spelling and Grammar Go Together
Spelling isn't technically grammar, but I've decided to include this section because the two go hand in hand. The most common grammar errors happen when writers use a word that sounds like a word with a different meaning. These are the errors that are most often missed by spelling and grammar checkers, too.
Using to, two, too
"To" implies a direction. You can go to a store, or give money to the clerk. "Two" is a number. "Too" adds something extra. You can go to a store, and give two dollars to the clerk, too. Now you have done two things. The extra letter that changes "to" into "too" lets you know "two" or more things are happening. If you can remember the sentence I put in bold letters, it will be easy to figure out which word is correct for your sentence.
The clerk accepted your two dollars, but it left your wallet empty, except for a single quarter. When someone receives something like money, advice, or a bad situation, they are accepting it. When something is excepted, it means it goes against the rest of what is happening. The wallet is empty, but one thing goes against it being empty - the exception to the emptiness.
ensure / insure
Ensure means to guarantee. I ensured myself that I had enough money to pay the clerk because I hadn't received my insurance payment yet. Insure means to cover a loss. Sometimes people are confused because insurance is often said to guarantee against loss, but that's not accurate. Insurance doesn't prevent a loss from happening. It simply pays money when a loss takes place. If my company insures your roof, then it will pay you money only if damage happens. There is no such thing as "ensurance," so if you're wondering which word to use, ask yourself if an insurance policy could be issued for your topic. If the answer is no, use "ensure.
advice / advise
When someone advises you, it means they gave you advice. I was glad I'd accepted my insurance agent's advice when he'd advised me to buy a renter's policy. Advise is always a verb. Advice is always a noun. Advise has a "z" sound in it, while advice has an "s" sound at the end of the word.
lose / loose
The loose wire that started that fire made me lose everything I owned, but my insurance was going to provide money so I could replace it. Lose means to "fail" or "fail to keep or maintain" something. It is a verb. Loose means "not tight" or "not firm." Although it can be used as a verb in extremely rare circumstances that most writers will never come across, loose is an adjective.
everyday / every day
It's easy to see why people would confuse these two! Every day is a phrase that is describing a time period, while everyday means something is common or unremarkable. I used to think loose wires were an everyday problem, but now I check for them every day.
affect / effect
These two words confuse even highly educated English speakers. Both words can be used as nouns, and both words can be used as verbs. Two words, four meanings. UGH! Let's take a closer look at them:
- Affect (noun) means the way an emotion is expressed. If I'm laughing at a funeral, I am showing an inappropriate affect.
- Effect (noun) refers to a result. If I laugh at a funeral, it might have a bad effect on others.
- Affect (verb) means to influence or change something in a way that isn't identified within the sentence. The "something else" is the object of the sentence. "I can affect his decision." "The sunshine affected my garden's growth."
- Effect (verb) means the subject brings about a specific and different result than something that existed before. "My husband effected a new set of rules in our household." In a way, this unusual use of the verb merges the meaning of the verb "affect" with the meaning of the noun "effect." For most situations, writers will want to use the word "affect" when seeking a verb.
The fire had a big effect (= noun) on my life. That effect included wearing the same clothes for several days, and it affected (= verb) my emotions badly. I had a depressed affect (= noun) for weeks afterward. Fortunately, my insurance policy will make it possible for me to effect (= verb) a better quality of life.
their, there, they're
"Their" describes two or more people. It is an adjective. "There" describes a place. "They're" is a combination of two words - "they are." I have moved there because the apartment was cute, but the landlords were negligent. They're reluctant to make repairs for their tenants.
than / then
"Then" describes a point in time. It might be one point in time that's part of a sequence of events. First, one thing happened, then another, and then a third one. The word "than" is part of a comparison between two or more things. I realized they procrastinated repairs more than my parents, and then I knew: I'd have to move when my lease ended.
Apostrophes Are for Absences
There's actually a very easy way to remember whether to use an apostrophe for most situations - remember that apostrophes are for absences. If two words are combined, and letters have been dropped out of a word to effect that change, an apostrophe is needed.
"It is" becomes "it's."
"Do not" becomes "don't."
"They are" becomes "they're."
"Who is" becomes "who's."
Same idea for can't, isn't, aren't, couldn't, shouldn't, and wouldn't.
When people make mistakes with apostrophes, it's usually because they're trying to make a plural noun or show possession.
"She's in her 30s" is correct, but it would be incorrect to use "30's" in the sentence because it's never necessary to add an apostrophe to turn a single noun into a plural one. Similarly, "The last world war ended in the 1940s."
Knowing when to use an apostrophe to show possession is a bit tricky, even for advanced writers. I recommend this thorough guide on possessives to understand when to use apostrophes and when not to.
"I'm ready to eat, Mom."
"I'm ready to eat Mom."
Good comma use is important if you want your writing to be understood.
Good Comma for Good Karma
Punctuation is the source of many common mistakes.
I've often seen writers place them outside quotation marks "like this", instead of where they should be, "like this," as it is supposed to be.
People who say the words they write mentally as they're putting words on a page use commas to create pauses where there should be none, or to splice two sentences together when a period should be used. This creates a run-on sentence. Here are examples of each:
- The girl went to the store, before she went to the gas station.
- The girl went to the store before she went to the gas station, she was running late.
Here's a great guide about how to use commas.
Progress, Not Perfection
These are some of the most common grammar errors, but they're certainly not the only mistakes that writers frequently make. To master your ability to write error-free articles, essays, reports, and stories, I encourage you to consider spending a few minutes per day completing the exercises found in the books I've hand-selected for beginner, intermediate, and advanced writers.
By learning a little at a time every day, you'll continually improve your abilities, which means less rewriting and editing for you, and better quality for your readers.