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Your 10 biggest grammar woes, solved

A guide to commas, clauses, commonly mixed-up words, and more, with can’t-fail tricks to keep your writing clean.

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I was scrolling Twitter recently, as one too often does when facing a tight editing deadline, when I spied a tweet more offensive to me than anything I’ve ever read on the site, and that’s saying something. The tweet in question was a response to one of my favorite editors, who had advised writers to use spellcheck and proofread for grammar before submitting an essay for publication.

The guy answering her wondered why this was necessary. “If my idea is good enough,” he demanded, “why do I need to worry about grammar? That’s your job.”

As a longtime copy editor, I felt personally affronted by the tweeter. Not “worry” about grammar? The nerve. Clearly this dude was just lazy, I thought. I began dashing off a snide response but then remembered my impending deadline. I switched from social media combatant to editor mode and resolved to forget about the tweet…only I couldn’t.

I slowly realized Lazy Dude might have been sincere. Editors issue a lot of commands, and writers get, understandably, sick of being told to do things when they aren’t offered the “why” behind it.

Let’s all get on the same page. Grammar is not meant to be oppressive. It provides guidelines to reduce confusion that would otherwise arise in our writing. Here are three reasons using proper grammar in a query or completed manuscript is vital:

  1. Correct grammar makes your pitch easier to understand. Reading messy grammar is difficult. Editors receive lots of mail. If your misplaced apostrophes and overzealous comma-ing obscure your point, the editor will move on to the next pitch in their overflowing inbox.
  2. Bad grammar distracts from your ideas. When an editor wastes minutes trying to decode your unique system of capitalization, they’re not digesting your insights. A brilliant pitch littered with typos has less chance of earning the green light than a neatly presented yet mediocre idea.
  3. Clean copy shows attention to detail. It’s hard to trust someone who cannot take 45 seconds to run spellcheck. Knowing an assigned piece will be submitted with proper grammar gives an editor confidence in your ability to get other things right, too, like the names of your sources. (And this is even more critical at a time when many publishers and publications have lost their fact checkers to budget cuts.)

Proper grammar demonstrates commitment to your project and respect for your editor. Feel apprehensive about your skills? Here is some good news for Twitter Guy and for you: You can improve your grammar, and we can help.

We polled writers across the country to determine their biggest grammatical pitfalls. Here are the top 10 weaknesses they identified – with actionable advice on how to fix them.

 

1. Affect vs. effect

Affect is a verb, and effect is (almost always) a noun. To figure out which one to use, study the context. Affect does something – using proper grammar affects the outcome of your query. Effect, on the other hand, is a thing or a result – using proper grammar has an effect on your query’s success.

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‰‰ Tip: I substitute another verb, alter, into the sentence in question. If it works, then I feel confident in using affect. Example: “The steroids may affect your mood.” You can swap in “alter,” and the sentence still works. Now try this one: “The steroids may have the effect of making you stronger.” Subbing “alter” confuses the sentence. Remember that “effect” often includes “an” or “the” before it.

Alas, grammar rules are not infallible, and there is one major exception to the affect/effect rules. You “effect change,” where effect is used as a verb – but you don’t “affect change.”  

2. Lay vs. lie

I’ll confess – I look this up every time just to be sure. Lay means putting something down flat and requires an object being acted upon, such as a book or piece of paper. Lie means being flat on the bed or another surface and refers to something moving of its own power or already put in position.

Here are two examples of proper usage: “I lay the book on the table.” “I lie down on the bed.”

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‰‰ Tip: I once saw a cute graphic illustrating the difference between these terms that showed a hen “laying” eggs on one side and a chicken “lying” down on the other. Now I think of that fowl in a lay/lie situation. The chicken lays an egg, just as you “lay” the book on the table. Then the chicken lies down after laying the eggs – she’s tired, you know.

 

3. Comma splices

Did your eyes glaze over at this subhead? A lot of people freeze up when it comes to the technicalities of grammar. “Comma splice” sounds intimidating, so think of it as something more basic – a run-on sentence. Here’s an example of one: “Editors rarely respond to pitches on social media, they are more likely to answer emails.”

A comma splice incorrectly uses a comma to connect two phrases that could stand independently. These phrases should actually be bridged by a semicolon, dash, or conjunction, like so: “Editors rarely respond to pitches on social media; they are more likely to answer emails” or “Editors rarely respond to pitches on social media, but they are more likely to answer emails.”

‰‰ Tip: Take sentences connected by a comma apart to see whether each clause stands on its own, i.e., do they have their own subjects and verbs? If so, you probably have a comma splice. In our example, both “Editors rarely respond to pitches on social media” and “they are more likely to answer emails” contain a set of subject and verb (editors/respond and they/are).

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